‘That’s what girls with powerful fathers do.’ ((Kelsey Rose.: 3.10.11, outside 25 West 4th Street, New York NY, 3:21 pm EST.: On the disparity between the radical voice in the early works of Rosario Ferré and the overt pro-statehood politics of Rosario Ferré.)) A slave for ever dilutes with dignity the fiction of love. The truth of this is spectacular. That even the mechanism of nature carries in its chaos an evanescent integrity. As I have been rent from these senses; none preserved, the right to have at chaos. We fester. We, when realized, will ways to destroy. And there, think nothing of order’s lamentations. Someone unheard is waiting to name love, again.
Some summer day, recall, your younger boy runs in the house for a plastic cup and fills it with water. Head full of sun, you hear him burning up the front steps into the kitchen. A few moments later, from the same window, you watch him run back outside and attempt to pour slowly his water down the chute of an ant colony. On the lawn. He stares, squatted by the small hill, waiting, listening perhaps for a sound. What makes this ant to rend the integrities. With what will to inseminate the sun.
This one that loves enough itself to love. That carries in its gaze the touch, honeyed. An eye that breathes, opening from season. The symbol, simple in its breath, is cruel—binds any grander sense of self in string. Ear pressed to hear the sound of summer flee. A speech that reaches, ringing from a depth, must make no mention of what light requests. The silence of the iris on its banks. The gentle lapping of his river rank in the arduous disintegration. Violent theft of holy soon forgotten. As was his wont, my once and future boy. A boy that would not leave with them their godhead. Will not abolish, and every morning together I chance, my hand over your kicking womb, that beauty is the perpetuation of the third language.
That legacy of man is a shadow, an impression, of the kept goodness in the flock of the fairer brother. In his absence Cain builds a metropolis. Of glass and gilt iron and gilt. The earth recoils from his hand. What transpires between two legs of a triangle, between four sides of a tetrahedron. A young man at the opposite end of the car has vomited, a nickel-yellow puddle between his black penny loafers. One nearest him nearly jumps from her seat, almost caught in the blast radius. There begins an egress. He is wearing a black leather jacket and black trousers. All black everything. His crewcut hides nothing of a stoic embarrassment; wanness with eyes closed. His head begins slowly to slump and nod, his shoulders dropping weight on his elbows pressing down on his knees to keep propped up his back. An argentine string of dribble hanging from his open mouth, distended by gravity, stretched and finally snapping back to his lip. Then the smell. Slightly more of vodka than bile. He wretches there, an abandoned figure sitting in the middle of the glossy slate blue bench, leaning slightly against the brushed steel rail in the bright florescent white light, beneath advertisements for Skin. And we are still sitting impatiently in the dark. Those of us who have not left the car, cooperating with the odor. And the blinding white and mirrored surfaces of the car in the dark; the iterative image in the angled double pane at each of the ends of the car. Several suns in the compound eye. If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? ((Genesis 4:7; King James Version.)) Something as well, biblical, of light succeeding dark by divine fiat. As one is not been a concept of the imagination before the other and began the cogs, each of such a series of projections, of his time.
One whose visual sport is textual encounters first law. Building between two energies a third language. Etching on the pane. Of an etch-proof glass. er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er. What Heidegger was unable to say. To we who are eyebright and arnica sitting impatiently in the dark. Those of us who have not left the car, cooperating with the odor.
‘The ties were cut and smashed between that point and the mouth of the tunnel. where the first car hit the concrete partition pier separating the north and the south sides of the tunnel. It was determined that the loss of life occurred almost entirely in the wooden cars of the train when they were dashed against the steel pillars, which cut like giant scythes through the sides of the cars and through the passengers packed inside them.’ ((The New York Times.: 11.4.1918.: THE MAYOR TO BEGIN B.R.T. INQUIRY TODAY)) If you knew what you were saying. If you could hear yourself, I mean. No—actually. If you knew what you were saying. If you could hear. There is in sound the imperative. Something irreparably fractal. Something rhizomatous. If you knew what you were saying. If you knew that sound of catastrophe is the blue midday. How many at any given moment are above and beneath you there is the blue midday? What is this sound in the blue midday? As a contact shoe touching and the smoldering sewage behind. A hand never too near. Or depth in devoid of light for things that sit beneath the tracks is an other notion of now seeing. Do we our whiskers grope through sound is blue midday?
A refinement of the sense is necessary. Right off the Hudson, by Vark. A Kawasaki plant in Yonkers. Kawasaki Heavy Industries Limited. Tokyo owned, Yonkers operated, in a building that was once the Otis Elevator Plant. Operating under United Technologies Corporation, the plant was closed in 1982. From the vertical to the horizontal chords of the subterranean bent snakeways. $16 million in taxpayer grist as investment of good faith in the modernization of Otis Elevators. It is now Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. Tokyo owned, Yonkers operated, stainless steel makers of the stainless steel R160B model. Where we sit, imagining the hand of Yonkers. Wearing safety goggles. With soot in bed and sinus of nail. Ember showers and disappear. Under many machines. A loud grooming sound. Riveting America. The factory built of a distinguished red brick. A red brick smokestack projecting its emulsions into the blue midday. Where Salomón III, for four years, worked as a heavy-crane operator. In his fifth year with Otis he was assigned to overseeing elevator repair-part production. Never lacking in ambition, per se, but dutiful. A forced hand I’d imagine. I had twelve by the death of the Second and my brother never complained. The spitting image of Salomón II in heart and mind, but the Third wore a softness of character that the Second kept hidden. This wasn’t entirely absent in the Second, but hidden. As when, in elementary school, he watched as I lost a fight in the yard. He walked over slow and stately, dispersing the crowd. He said nothing to me. Tears running down my face. He held my hand, which fit cleanly in his palm, as I recall, and we walked to the corner store. He bought me a creamsicle. Orange was my favorite color. I could never forget that, there in the Second. Funny. The fights, bone and muscle forget. The scars though. And that was often his intention. We learned. We ate fear behind. My father, not long after my fight, found a pack of Winstons in the Third’s bedroom. He dragged all the Solnidos, Mami, Mom, and Payín, into the living room round midnight. The pack of Winstons in the dim lamplight of the coffee table. His lawyer lamp with the green glass shade over the bulb and the brass stem. I remember. The Second opened the pack and handed the Third a Winston. Lit it for him and stepped back a mile into the dark as my brother in the catbird seat took nervous drags. Down to the filter. Where you going to put it out? My father asked from beyond the glow of the lamp which only caught, just like that. My brother at the end of the Eames at the edge of the Eames chair. The dark rowhouse of the bookshelf behind. Womenfolk in the umbra. The Second stepping forward then, at the edge of light. Emerging. My brother looked starved for air, trembling. He, in a craven whisper I remember, attempted to resist. please. His hand reaching up toward the approaching Second with the smoldering butt glowing in the dark between his thumb and index finger. please. Then in the light said Second to Third. Open your mouth.
No hay nada mejor. The Third, my brother, his eyes always on the prize, gleaning his small seeds, fed me in the following year’s absence. Acting surrogate in the emptied umbra. Coming home after dark. Singing James Brown in the kitchen. Eating lukewarm leftovers earlier prepared by Veronica. Sometimes I’d sit with him. Just listen to him sing or hum or tap a beat. Wait for him to look up from the plate and grin my way. A lovely, feral grin. A fatigued grin. I was in my middle teens when, in the early months of 1983, Veronica left him for Willy Detroit Wallace and Detroit. Took his son. In 1983. My nephew. The custody hearing lasted into spring of the following year with Veronica flying in at regular intervals, late and imperiled. His son, legally bound to visit, would not return to Brooklyn without his mother for another sixteen years. The morning of the decision I remember lifting Batman and the Outsiders #10 from the corner store. I cried silently, like a man. THE KILLING OF BLACK LIGHTING. Strapped and abused on a saltire. And my brother’s expression, having just driven home the old Nova for the last time, a shadow drawing over his darkling face. Gone by morning from the house on Stratford. Lost to riveting America. I should have said something. I could see how neglected she felt in the late afternoons alone with the child. Waking, alone, with the child. Nursing alone, that fucking bastard. So unraveled the promise of his prize, his promise. A broken bower. And I.
‘It’s getting late.’ ((Floetry.: 3.18.11 Getting Late; Floetic (2002 DreamWorks Records) 7:50 am EST.: She will not fall asleep with me in this leavening vulnerability of morning. Standing nude in front of the blinds, dressing with her back to me, arms up and hands busied adjusting floccose waves of hair into a neat bun. She dips, pulling up sheer hosiery over her hips to meet her narrow waist, just below the navel, as shadow passing over the ochretone of her skin. Sun rising over the rooftops, striating, through the blinds, the silhouette of her bare breasts. She reaches for her bra. Lissom and leaving. Impressions on the tongue.)) Who is unafraid to say, to tell, what to love is. In the infinitives. It proves never a topic too large for we. A prayer with no vocalic amen.
It’s getting late. The vomiteer is breathing softer now, pulling thinly through his open mouth. The muscles of his back tensed to regulate respiration. No longer reaching to oxygenate his insides. He has found, for the moment, some equilibrium. The air still thick with malhumor. With ironies are eyelids chafffallen from my halfsleep. On the floor of my halfsleep. That floor speckled black and white and red and red and gray. Shoeprints. Vomit. To unlove. ‘You are unloveable, but need it more.’
At my right sits an adolescent and, beside him, his mother. As goes the smell of his youth mingled with malhumor: shit and fresh laundry. Fidgety laundry and fresh shit and malhumor. At my left are three teenage whitegirls from middle America clustered together, wearing pajamas, carrying blankets and luggage from Wal-Mart. Leaning, almost huddled, over the girl seated at the center of the troika discussing their lateness in a mistaken volume. If they know no cipher lasts forever. The girl closest to me turns and asks unexpectedly—Does this train stop at 23rd street? Her young breast cleaving the light between sight and point. Plain in the florescent white; if diglossia is its color must remain a body in motion or a body in stasis. Milk fed. She repeats, softer now, friendlier—Does this train stop at 23rd street? Yes, I think so. Or at least it will after 14th. She nods her thanks and turns away. They discuss their lateness, their waiting, waiting. I am watching the dark window. In the window she is watching me. Her friends have moved on to a new topic of conversation. <<running express to 14th Street—Union Square>> I know what she wants to know from me.
In the Second’s death. In the absence of the Third. Skipped by the numeral assignation of my lineage. Breathing the provenance of voice. We readers of. In. The governance of being. I am First. The last mile is squealing before movement in four slotted tones up and one tone down. We’re moving now. And that’s it.
A Backwards Story of a Backwards Man
The Night A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks he flicked on a small lamp in the corner of the room and rushed a Yuengling from the fridge. After a clack, fizz and slurp, after a warm flood through the gut that settled the tremble in his arms somehow, he turned on the TV: numbered ping-pong balls shot through a tubular cage like popcorn, as though popcorn could be what was, after all these years, summoning his fate – he chuckled. When the last sphere spun, slowed, and tilted to a pause, locked behind silver bars, A.W. almost lost the Yuengling. He stood, thoughts stunned as though nailed to the floor of his mind – which is how he would later describe the sensation of winning (“Sounds crazy, I know”). Then: “I’m glad!” He was giddy, confused, elated, shouting to no one, to an empty house: “I’m glad!” – letting the strangeness sift through him, with the words. He said them again, a variation: “I’m so glad!” And again, feeling his smile set: “I’m glad but not surprised!” Soon his lips were pressed to the plastic receiver of a telephone: “We did it! Like being struck by lightning twice!Finally!” His breath mixing with the cold in the room slickened the mouthpiece. “I told you!”
She didn’t know what her father was referring to, so she said nothing, until she said, “We did?” Her freshly cleansed hair was coiled into a white towel that tilted when she leaned her cheek against the phone. She had been memorizing a soliloquy of Hamlet for school. And she’d been watching American Idol. And she’d been waiting for her fingernail polish to dry into a rich, crimson red, while sitting in an old recliner chair. But, later in bed, with her drying hair curved like a fan behind her, the words echoed: I told you.
Earlier, That Morning Had Been like every morning lately, promising. He swung open the door of The Moose Crossing. The convenience store served the best chocolate chip pancakes in Downeast, Maine and the largest muffins, the tops spilling over crimped paper like deflated tires. It was also famous for an assortment of lottery tickets and a kind-faced clerk. Scraping together callus-frost palms, A.W. surveyed the peanut butter cookies and jumbo whoopie pies. Finally, he requested two Megabucks, lifting a pack of Yuenglingto the countertop. His seasonal work, landscaping gigantic cottages, could not accommodate his yearlong Megabucks routine, but A.W. was very hopeful. I have to be, he said from time to time self-defensively, speaking to no one, speaking to himself. He had to look up – to prioritize possibility before regret, the future before the past. It was time. He smiled at the store clerk and hurried into the shelter of his rusty Volvo, a car that choked when he turned the key, but it was a warm car.
“I’m a Hoper, Not a Sweeper,” A.W. informed his daughter in the car in the driveway of her mother’s home. He had just retrieved her from soccer practice. These were the only slivers of time to be together, just the two of them – moving from A to B, or, given the chance, sitting in the car – and they almost hurt. How much he hoped these moments reached perfection. It almost felt good – how much it hurt. This was one year before he thought he won the Megabucks.
She had watched a documentary in school today, which bothered her and so bothered A.W. The documentary presented a culture of working class Americans, who earned an unreasonable amount of money but squandered it anyway. They were addicted to sweepstakes, games of chance. “Even though they hardly ever win,” said A.W.’s daughter. Many were insomniacs always scanning the Internet for new contests, she explained with strained sophistication. Some formed clubs on strategizing: colored packaging of prize applications would surely do the trick, doodles, hearts, puppy-dog faces. What the daughter did not tell A.W. was that the moral of the film was really this: These people are foolish. Another way of saying: These grownups are children. Don’t grow up to be like them. Be smarter.
When the documentary ended that day in school and the screen snapped from color to black, a static haze filled the classroom of teenagers gathering books to leave, as if the correct amount of knowledge could take them away from this small town. As if smallness were ever the problem, and maybe it was – the oasis of insularity.
A.W. shook his head and said, “Hope is the thing, honey,” reaching for something else his daughter could have learned in school, literature, something she could relate to, to make her relate to him. He was an English major once. When she did not respond, he saw that his daughter’s class hadn’t gotten to Dickinson yet and – who knows – maybe never would. He replaced the silence: “Well, wait. I got a little something for ya’,” providing with some shame a Megabucks ticket. She smiled, kissed him, and ran to the house.
From her vantage point of just outside the kitchen door, she thought he resembled a backwards Santa Claus: globe of snow-white hair, dirty jacket, ripped jeans. He was always presenting the idea of magic without the ability to employ it; say, fly.
“We could get a helicopter, fly our own private jet!” he called from the car window, face stretched, wind-burnt smile. “If we win!”
She turned to speak, to say something smart, but knew suddenly that she was too young to know anything. Not knowing that even as she grew older – old – she would use the same excuse, except invert it in a way to avoid expressing anything directly, anything that could be true, or wrong. The older I get, the less I know is what she would say when she grew old. Like an adage hanging on the wall of a home it would have hung in her mind long enough to have been solidified from words to what felt like truth. It was something A.W. had always said, she’d realize so long after that particular day in the driveway, and that’s how she knew it. And what it was she wished she knew that moment standing at the kitchen door when she was just a girl in high school would fall away: That it was wrong to hope so much? Or want so much? Or was it need so much? She’d said to her father once: I wish you were dead. She meant to keep the thought inside, but something had slipped. Then: anger toward him slackened to pity. Then: she saw it in his face – a flash of pain replaced by a little smile.
She’d be decades older than her father ever was when the epiphany eventually dawned – that her silent mantra was his spoken one (“The older I get….”); she’d realize and re-realize this in fits of memory, or what could be called wisdom, that often seized her those years before her death of old age, which she would see coming like a psychic, or a person reading the book of her own life and feeling the pages thin; something he had always said when she was small. And something else: “Hope is the thing,” she’d try to recall. How had Emily Dickinson put it? She’d buy a book, an antique, to remember. She’d find the poem in the middle of its many parted pages. “The thing with feathers.” She’d think the poem was supposed to be uplifting, but it would instead feel cliché, and the disjunction between what she felt and what she thought she should feel would compose a pain that like a hand gripping her stomach – twisting – would make her wish to be a child again, memorizing Shakespeare from an overstuffed chair. Back when even old words felt new. Instead, she’d be this: a woman pointing down at a poem with an index finger, holding all those pages apart with pinky and thumb, lest it all collapse together. She would miss her father terribly then, wondering why he left so soon. “The older I get,” she’d have absorbed his mantra like second-hand smoke, without realizing, without minding, almost gladly come to think, “the less I know.” It made her feel a part of him.
The young daughter waved as the Volvo lurched away.
Three Years before A.W. Thought He Won the Megabucks,
one sweaty summer afternoon presented a kind of humidity not to be expected in mid-coastal Maine. It crept between where things existed, connecting all objects and people and thickening the world, A.W. suspected, into a solid orb, a heavy ball in the sky that would one day find itself too fat to spin, and drop. He was without hope and hopeless. He phoned his ex-wife. His voice projected the shrill desperation of his inner thoughts: “I’m going to do it this time [because there had been other times]. I’m going to kill myself.”
She was watching Law and Order: SVU, an interesting episode. It had been a long day. Dinner was made, dishes were done, and the daughter was busy with homework in her room. The last thing the ex-wife wanted was to comfort A.W. So: “If you’re going to do it, don’t make a mess.”
“Remember the bad thing? I can’t stop thinking,” he paused to clear his nose. “Maybe I don’t deserve to live.”
The ex-wife remembered many bad things but knew the one sticking to A.W.’s mind was the one that had instigated divorce. She muted the television and listened for clues that her daughter was listening, too, but there was only the trickle of music from down the hallway. She hissed into the phone just in case: “You have your daughter to think of.”
A.W. dialed a new number, spoke to a new voice, relived the bad thing through words, and became a voluntary patient at “Acadia,” an institution known through this and the neighboring counties as the only one of its kind. He did not kill himself then, but it soon became clear to him that the odds of someone with bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and a history of domestic abuse finding contentment were to be equated only with winning the Megabucks.
The Day A.W. Did Something Really Bad occurred ten years before he thought he won the Megabucks. He awoke in the morning with a headache that extended to the pit of his stomach, instigating heartache along the way. Lying in bed, he searched the cavern of his mind for why he felt this way – pain for no reason was not worth having – and found nothing. He searched harder, still nothing. Then something. He sat up, back jerked straight as though postured by a wooden board; there was maybe just one reason for feeling so terribly bad, sad. The old horse. Their old horse had died last week. A.W. found him in the pasture, in the snow, up on the highest hill and nearly frozen in the shifty wind of morning. A.W. stood there beside the mound of soulless body, watching and wondering how to tell his wife her favorite thing was gone.
But, he knew it wasn’t the horse that was making him feel this way. The death, though never to be admitted aloud, had brought relief. And so, pain without reason, and so – the invisible wound seethed. The mind had become a set of dominoes on the breezy ledge of a world where everything is connected to everything else; where one small incident leads to another, and if something, a single moment, collapses, all moments, past, present and future, crumble; a world where everything breaks eventually.
In the bathroom mirror, while brushing his teeth – he thought he could “center” himself with daily ritual – he noticed his neck pulse, which reminded him of blood and the inner workings of his body and the possibility of a heart attack. He spat the chalky juice into the sink and rushed to the bed where his wife slept. He pushed her head with the palm of his hand. He hissed her name, but she rolled away; he raised his voice, so she groaned. “Help me!” he said.
She looked at him, blinking with the oblivion of the newly awoken, of a child, until she awoke completely, her eyes large and glistening as silver dollars. A sphere of hope, like A.W.’s pain, unraveled down the back of her throat. “Please don’t kill me,” she said. She knew this was not the first time one had awoken in fear, and she felt as though she embodied every person who ever had. Trillions of worlds of dread inside her, bursting, one by one, like soap bubbles, leaving her insides scraped new and raw. Trillions of worlds of dread, including A.W.’s. She wanted to fold into herself, to protect everything inside. He held his deer-hunting rifle to her temple. She thought she could read his mind: I have to.
She thought she could read his mind, and he sensed her doing it: I have to blow away the place where thoughts come from. He aimed right at that place.
“Please,” she said like a child; the word had regressed to a whimper, but he understood what she meant; he could read her thoughts, too. “Please don’t kill me.”
Of course he wouldn’t. He was only realizing now – he didn’t have it in him, a thought so good it felt like milk spilt on his mind. The best thought: I don’t have it in me to kill someone else. It was now so clear what had gone wrong: he’d been mistaking his thoughts for hers, a problem he’d fight for years to come, conflating his thoughts with so many others. His wife was sweating on the bed, white nightgown wet, blonde hair stringy from sleep, and he thought: She looks like an angel.
He was glad when she moved out, even with the daughter. Even as a grown man, there was so much about himself he didn’t know, and on bad days it was so embarrassing he could almost die.
“What Is the Point?” A.W. wanted to know. His bride wanted the horse, bad. “But what is the point of buying a retired barrel racer?” They were starting their own farm together, and this was what she wanted: an orange piece of broken hide, scarred, too scared, and so too scary, for use, nearly twenty hands high and twenty years old, this walking, giant corpse – ifhe could walk. “He’ll waste all our feed.”
“They’ll turn him to glue.” She clung to A.W.’s hand. She was always wanting to save things, which he had to respect.
That Friday, they arrived home late after celebrating their recent purchase. These days they celebrated every chance they had, because life was a celebration. They’d been told theirs was the mindset of the newlywed, but to them it all seemed so infinite, nothing could ever end, no feeling so strong, of happiness especially.
A.W. pulled his truck up by the pasture. Their horse stood in the headlights, a statue behind the new barbed-wire fence but for his blinking eyes. A.W. let the radio play Neil Young as he went to open his wife’s door. A warm mood was setting with the sun. The autumn air was fresh. He wanted to dance with his wife beneath the stars, but instead he just stood at her door, shaking his head. She was so beautiful she could have been an angel. The music played and a harvest moon rose, just like Neil said. She looked up at him, and, although embarrassed, although flattered, although filled with the knowledge of everything about him, his past (because he had told only her), she was hopeful.
That night, the horse came to her in a dream. In the dream, he was dying, ancient body peeling away. He was a ghost slipping from the sleeve of skin, hair falling from flanks with each swell of motion. He was in her room. He was leading her to the door, up the hill, away from the pasture, far away from everything here toward somewhere and anything else. She didn’t know where.
“When I die, you will leave this place,” the horse turned and said suddenly, though not surprisingly (as is the way with dreams, she’d sigh, thinking years later on the strangeness of the situation and watching Law and Order: SVU,after a long day,on mute). Pure ghost now, what awaited her response was a whisper of being, a sliver of mist, almost nothing at all.
“Uh. Okay. But, I don’t trust talking horses,” her dream-self countered. Then something hit her, a strange truth: When I die, you will leave this place. She wanted to tell him that didn’t make sense, to remind him: “You’re already so old.” But something shifted, changed; she was awake now and found herself alone.
A.W. was a Very Bad Child.
When he was four years old, trouble came easy. One day he taught himself to swim. Finding pleasure in companionship, he brought the barn cats. There they all were: Smokey Gray, Smokey White, Kitty Black, and A.W. in the horses’ water trough that afternoon, mewing. The trough did not present the depth of water necessary for danger. The pockets of A.W.’s overalls filled with liquid, and the way his pant legs expanded into balloons when he sat pleased him. He had a child’s cup of milk and liked the way it stained the murky water white when he poured it all in.
Then he saw his father moving toward him from a distance, and there was the first flicker of fear; it spoke in the meter of heartbeats, nervous, fast and faster, saying: “Go, A.W. Go-go-go.” Warning: “A.W., this is your chance. Now!” But he didn’t know fear. Nothing bad had ever happened. He was excited. Signals crossed – even then, he barely understood what his self was telling him. It seemed a game. With a chuckle – the laughter of someone much older – he picked up Smokey Gray, who hissed and scratched. Then he scooped the other kitties from the trough to begin his race, howling. It felt like a game, it really did.
A.W.’s father had, upon noticing the swim, broken routine, dropped a bag of horse feed to the ground, pulled a loose two-by-four from the rotting fence, and begun to run. His action came from adrenaline not thought, so if he did think one thing it could only have been: “This will never happen again.” But he was not a man of words, and words would falsify his character. Simply, he was the period that plugged each sentence, the stopper in the throat of discussion, the end to every story.
A single nail, jagged and out of place, stuck from the board. A.W.’s father caught A.W. – because a four year-old outrunning a man was just so very unlikely. In hindsight, the adult A.W. wondered why the boy A.W. had not thought this through, dear Lord.
A.W. had tripped in the grass. Staring up at the man, the boy blinked with the oblivion of the newly awoken, until he awoke completely, his eyes, like his wife’s in later years, were large as silver dollars, reflective as polished money. It didn’t take long to see that the nail was actually a tooth and that the wood from the split-rail fence was another animal on the vast Ohio farm, ready to snap.
In the years to come, the punctures in his neck began to resemble pale, pink bites. They had transformed A.W., whose story could never be as easy, as straightforward, as he’d always hope. A boy did not transcend childhood one day, becoming a man.
He lost it.
Litro #117: America—Editors’ Letter
America, that slippery beast. One nation, one constitution, one currency: a framework for arguably the most diverse, remarkable and undefinable country in the world. But short stories are something of an American specialty; in 1962 Frank O’Connor described them as America’s national art form, and the roll call—from Cheever, Carver, and Yates to Yiyun Li, ZZ Packer, and Jhumpa Lahiri—is as much an illustration of the changing American imagination as anything else.
Like that relentless metamorphosis, this issue is crafted to take you off course to territories new and unexplored, both on and off the road. We wanted this vast, complex, hybrid nation to be represented through its songwriters, short story writers, and Fred Voss, the American Bard of factory life who has published three superb poetry collections… in short, its iconoclasts. We’re thrilled to have two new stories from Granta’s Best American Novelists: Jess Row with her elegiac and haunting state-of-the-nation story, “Waterfalls“, and Anthony Doerr with his heartbreaking yet redemptive tale, “Trees“. Simon Felice’s “The Night Ridge” injects a dosage of dreamlike urban lyricism, and we ramble in the Mojave desert with Geoff Nicholson.
Curating a collection of American stories can’t hope to reflect all the possibilities of the country. This little taster is to show glimmers, a few reflections of the myriad complexities that lie beneath. The American short story is in rude health. Long may it continue.
In other news, we’re delighted to welcome Ian Parks as Litro’s new poetry editor (an introduction here), and look forward to bringing more of the best new poetry into the mix for forthcoming issues.
So I was a counselor at a summer camp.
Not the kind of camp you see in the movies. It was on an island; stranger still, an island smack in the middle of Boston Harbor. In the nineteenth century it had been an orphanage. There was a quadrangle of old brick buildings, athletic fields, patches of woods, tidal swamp. There was a ropes course and a nature trail and a campfire circle and even a dock with sailboats and canoes. Though no swimming. You can’t have kids swimming in Boston. The summer I worked there three corpses washed up on the beach: one whole, one decapitated, one just a human torso, headless, armless, an oblong chunk of flesh.
[private]It was a charity camp, of the Fresh Air Fund variety: our kids came from the joyless telephone-wire blocks, the broken glass streetcorners, the squalling asphalt parks of Roxbury, Dorchester, Quincy, Bunker Hill. They rode the ferry carrying corner deli subs in wax paper and Super Fizz Cherry Blast, Golden Krust meat patties and Champagne Cola; they brought boom boxes and yesterday’s tabloids with photographs of drive-by victims they’d known from around the way, and teddy bears, and Supersoakers, and asthma inhalers. Monday mornings they descended from the camp ferry and swept across the island in a cacophonous wave, like Vikings; we trailed behind with first-aid kits, tubs of sunblock, bottles of DEET, picking up debris, nursing the trampled and maimed. Every so often we came across a pistol, its serial number filed away, tossed in the bushes or drowned in a toilet tank.
These children—because they were still children, at twelve, thirteen, even fourteen, with children’s faces staring out of startlingly long-limbed bodies—drew you in, so that you lived among them, sharing their rituals, their taboos, the sweet oppressive stink of young bodies shoved together, and then expelled you, a pathetic interloper, with wry disgust. You could see it in the faces of the replacement counselors, who came nearly every week: beatific joy, as the game proceeded, the shrieks of laughter, the hollers, the pretend-back-of-the-hand kisses and slaps on the ass, and then, at dinnertime, red-eyed, thin-lipped rage, as they sat deserted at the far end of the cafeteria table, bewildered, insulted, spiritually mauled. As often as not they’d be on the special Tuesday midnight ferry that hauled our worst offenders back to Juvenile Justice and summer school. There was no shame in leaving; really it was a matter of luck. Who among us could have withstood the pyromaniac lighting up his bunkmate’s sleeping bag three nights in a row, the cabal who spraypainted 187 All Cops across the front of the gym, the eleven-year-old suicide case who rubbed poison ivy across her bleeding wrists and ankles? At night we huddled in our cells and ate through our stashes of chocolate and Xanax, waiting for the scream, the explosion, the shattering windowpanes, that would indicate our clocks had run out, and it was time to flee: back to our parents’ lazy sprinklers, their decomposing patio furniture and six o’clock rations of Chardonnay.
No one worked there because they needed the money. We could have gone to Maine, New Hampshire, the Poconos—Ramapo, Katahdin, Bide-a-Wee—and made three or four thousand a summer, plus tips. The staff ran high in Ivy League degrees, plus a sprinkling of Oberlins, Amhersts, Haverfords and Bates’. Millions of dollars, collectively, had funded our upbringings, our delicate educations; we tended toward battered L.L. Bean backpacks and Teva sandals, thrift store t-shirts and ratty cutoffs, noserings and pretend dreadlocks. We were a renewable resource, like bamboo: there were always more where we came from.
We weren’t saints; we were unknowing children, too; trying to locate ourselves in the shifting sands of theory and guilt, and we thought, what better place to start than with pain, someone else’s pain, the pain of the dispossessed? It was a black thing and we wouldn’t understand, but we were optimists, weaned on Eyes On The Prize; we were used to obstacles miraculously dissolving in telegenic time: an hour-long documentary, a two-page application essay. Was it guilt, naked ambition, an excess of good intentions? No, it was an excess of love. Love pooled under our tongues and collected like calcium deposits beneath our fingernails. Overestimated, overvalued, overresourced, we sensed the deficit, and offered up our bodies as collateral.
Who was I, in particular? I have a vague memory of my father sailing in the 1984 Solomons Island regatta, his bare, tanned back turned away from me, the sun riffling his bleached hair. I loved ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ but never bought another album after The Joshua Tree. My parents’ house in Sagoponack had an acre of lawn that sloped down to the water. I lost my virginity to Adele Saperstein at Model UN camp in 1988.
Or was that me, or was that a dream I had? I sometimes wonder if I dreamed my entire slot-fitting childhood. Does it matter to you, one way or another? Would an answer make it hurt any less?
Nelson Quang-Torres—he was there too, bright as a flare in a basement full of old newspapers. He was from Lexington by way of J.P; he’d done a few years of community college, and had once danced with Madonna, he claimed, at a nightclub in New York, and she’d offered him a backup spot on the Vogue tour, but he was fifteen, in the city without his parents’ permission, and had to turn it down.
Fuck me, he had a habit of saying, at the least provocation. In front of the kids, in front of Melissa, the camp director. It didn’t matter. He was possessed of what he himself called the inherent inner fabulous; all of a piece with the immaculate Nikes and the matching headband coiled around a mop of tight shiny curls like a planter, the lisp and the flick-of-the-wrist model wave, the falsetto RuPaul imitation. It’s your birthday, go crazy, go crazy. He directed the talent show at the end of each three-week term: a wild affair, with colored lights, deafening sound, and a catwalk, where girls barely in their teens strutted in dresses made of feathers, tape, and heavy-duty tinfoil.
In those days I hadn’t realized I would never overcome my revulsion to smoking long enough to develop a habit. Even toward the end of the week I always had a nearly full pack of Parliaments and a lighter that worked. They weren’t menthols, he always complained, but he was too broke to care. In the evenings, the sunset softening the sky over Boston to a child’s smeared pastels, we were allowed a fifteen-minute break on the beach between dinner and Evening Activities, while the overnight kids returned to their cabins to smoke their own cigarettes, and devise new forms, and venues, of havoc.
We got to get out of here, he was saying, that particular Thursday. Saturday was our day off, and we could leave the island Friday early evening, if we wanted to. But no one ever did. Friday night we had encounter sessions; we sorted through our biases and agonized over our problem campers. It was team-building, tearful, motivational, not required but required. He hated it. But he couldn’t leave the island by himself.
Troyer, he said, Troyer gave me the keys to his car. He’s away for the week. Grandmother’s funeral.
So tomorrow’s Friday, baby. Time to make something happen. My moms sent me a hundred bucks for my birthday. I’ve been sitting on that cash for weeks. We ought to go down to J.P., have some decent food, go to a club. Score some weed. Not that skunky homegrown shit Julia brought down from Vermont. I’m talking hydroponic.
He lit a new cigarette from the tip of the last and stood up, shucking his shoes. Check it out, he said, clasping his palms together above his head, tucking his right foot against his left thigh. Tree pose. He stood there for a full minute, his cigarette flaring at the corner of his mouth.
Nelson, I said, if Troyer finds out you borrowed his car —
Shit, if he cared so much, why’d he give me the keys?
Whatever, he said, staring straight ahead. Come with me or don’t. You white people give me the creeps.
What I do in life, what I did in life, is sit at a desk in an office building and watch numbers flickering across an enormous flat monitor and talk on the telephone. I am, I was, director of capital projects for a mid-size medical equipment company. A company you would never hear of in ordinary circumstances. We make, that is to say we paid others to make, components of artificial joints: hips, knees, elbows. We have squadrons of materials specialists and quality control engineers all over the world. And in retrospect we should have known that the price was too low, that a silicate molding manufactured in a town no one could find on a map in Shandong Province couldn’t possibly stand the weight of two titanium joints rotating over and over, over years, in an artificial hip, though all the tests came out fine. They were rigged, those tests. Someone in the Chinese company paid off someone in Singapore who paid off someone in Hyderabad who filled out the paperwork from the testing company, and now we’re on the front page of every business section in the world, and my former boss, my CEO, has been photographed walking into federal court, shielding his face with an umbrella I bought for him as a joke on a business trip to Montreal. Merde! Il pleut, it says. He doesn’t speak French.
In the office, all around me, people are packing cartons, throwing out reams of unused stationery, and using the mail carts to carry off potted plants and flat-screen monitors and expensive recessed lighting components. I hear the maintenance staff are being paid fifty bucks a pop to look the other way if you want to take your ergonomic office chair as a souvenir. I’m the only one still working at my cubicle, noise-reduction headphones clamped over my ears, typing this. My severance check sits next to me on my desk. If I don’t cash it in the next hour or two, it may bounce.
THE SOURCE OF ALL PATHOS
There was the girl who cracked her gum as she spoke, as a kind of punctuation; the boy who turned and sprinted away whenever he saw me, a flash of knobby knees and a Pistons jersey ballooning away from his skinny frame. The girls who spent all their time on the dormitory steps, braiding and rebraiding one anothers’ hair; the boys clustered under the ancient oak tree at the far end of the soccer field, trading contraband copies of Hustler smuggled in their sleeping bags. The ones who cried for their mothers at three-thirty in the morning.
Call her Tanya, she whose real name has been excised from my memory, who stood a head above the rest, who was so matchstick thin her body seemed to bend light around it. She was always sucking on the tiny wooden spoons that came attached to the paper cups of ice cream in dining hall. And she never spoke to any of the counselors or the staff. No one was sure what cabin she belonged to. At every activity—capture-the-flag, kickball, pottery, scavenger hunt—she stood on the sidelines and watched, a silent referee, an oracle.
In those days, before liability insurance forbade it, we did trust falls: forcing them to stand, blindfolded, on the edge of a picnic table, and fall backward, arms folded King Tut style, into the waiting arms of their cabinmates. Even the short, fat boys, not even five feet tall, who had the gravitational density of cannonballs: we called in the cooks from the cafeteria, six footers, former nightclub bouncers, as reinforcements. Everyone fell, everyone got caught. It was the Thompson Island rule. When it was my turn I nearly choked from fear, seeing stars beneath the bandanna, and passed out on the way down, and came to on my side, breathing into a paper bag. And I was seized with the belief that my upbringing fell away from me, inadequate, incommensurate with this world
You all right? Tanya asked. You OK?
I squinted up at her, in silhouette, against the fluorescent glare of an overcast summer sky. With the little spoon jutting away from her mouth she looked like some kind of icon, like a returning warrior, toothpick in gritted teeth. I wondered if she might kick me in the stomach to get my back upright. Walk it off.
I guess I was just too heavy, I said. Should’ve gotten backup.
No, they caught you, she said. You just had your eyes closed and didn’t believe it. F’you don’t believe you’re gonna get caught nobody can’t do nothing for you. You counselors, you’re supposed to know that shit.
Don’t say shit, I said, automatically.
With great delicacy she removed the spoon, flicked it into the bushes, and walked away.
This ferry is crossing the churning oily waters of Boston Harbor, speckled with black ducks, who float with only their long necks and slender needle-like heads above the surface, and it is crossing, too, out of the the luminous confines of our good intentions, back into history, to the pier where T.J. Hales’s restaurant sells fried clams and onion rings to the pimply, close-cropped, creamy white-skinned teenagers of South Boston, whose parents—perhaps grandparents, the generations here are short and swift—fought pitched battles to keep the children of Dorchester and Roxbury from being bused to their schools. That our summer camp has its designated pier and private ferry here is a matter of geographic necessity, involving a generous yearly donation for the upkeep for the Donal O’Reilly Memorial, Donal O’Reilly being the very same state assemblyman who vowed to lie down across the path of any schoolbus crossing L Street in 1971. Needless to say, we rope our charges tightly together going to and from the boat, in midday, with police cruisers nearby, and we don’t often come or go at night, not even ourselves, myself, I who have sandy brown hair and a few dark freckles on the bridge of my nose, and could pass for Irish until I open my mouth. When we finally reach the pier it’s seven forty-five, the sunset dissolving to a sickly pinkish twilight, and the story has shifted firmly into the present tense, to indicate a change in mood as well as history, judging from the stonefaced stares of the boys clustered around Hales’s window as we walk up the ramp and onto the sidewalk, looking for Troyer’s old Volvo.
Fucking European cars, Nelson says. You know how to drive one of these things?
I tell him no. My family, my supposed family, drives Subarus till the undercarriages rust out. It’s a point of pride. Or at least we ought to. We should have some distinguishing memorable detail.
Nelson and I slide into our seats, he on the driver’s side, reluctantly. It can’t be that difficult, he says, gripping the stickshift, which refuses to move into reverse. One, two, three, four, five: he tests them all. The radio wails the third chorus of Browneyed Girl; I shut it off, to help him concentrate. The pier, strangely quiet, smells of strawberry lip gloss, briny harbor air, and spilled Velveeta. For a moment, apropos of nothing, I think, I love America.
Hey, a voice says, speaking through the open window on my side. See that little grip underneath? Pull up on that thing.
There are four or five or them, surrounding us, on both sides of the car; we see them at waist level: the elastic bands of their Notre Dame basketball shorts, their ruddy hands with the tiny four-leaf clovers tattooed between thumb and forefinger. The one leaning in has a Caesar-style haircut, a gold tooth on the left side, and a friendly, skeptical grin.
Hey, Jimmy, one of his friends calls out, how come you know so much about Jap cars?
I don’t. But I guess I know more than this spick does.
Nelson laughs. I don’t see his face; I couldn’t look at him in the face. But he laughs as if at the entire world’s expense. Man, he says, can’t you do better than that? Spanish Person In Charge?
Get the fuck out of here, faggot, he says. And take your faggot friend with you. We don’t like your kind in Southie.
Oh yeah? Nelson says. What kind do you like?
THE PRESENT PERFECT
They are chasing us out of South Boston, on Farragut and roaring down Broadway and out Summer Street past the piers and the Harpoon brewery and the convention center, in a Jeep and another car behind that, eight of them or ten, bottles bouncing off the roof, chunks of concrete and boomerangs of rebar punching holes in the rear window. They have baseball bats and broken malt liquor bottles and who knows what else, a gun or two, a can of gasoline and a lighter, a roll of duct tape? Keep your fucking head down, Nelson screams, and guns through one red light after another. The roads are strangely deserted: not a cop, not a passerby. It’s a Friday night in Boston, and no one there to see. Now you know what my life is like every goddamned day, Nelson is shouting. Even now he’s still shouting. And they are still chasing us. My sphincter seized into a fist, my hands scrabbling at the dashboard for something to hold on to. It’s still happening, it’s not allowed to be over. To allow it to be over, to end the suspense, to enter the unbearable future, to forget it, to blot it out of memory again: isn’t there another way? Every story doesn’t need an ending. They are chasing us out of South Boston, left on Farragut, left on Broadway, right on Summer, acting out their part in an ancient ritual, the chasing of The Faggot and the The Faggot’s Friend. Every story needs a victim, every story needs a sacrifice, and here we are.
We lost them by the time we passed South Street Station, but just to be sure Nelson swung three sharp rights in a row. A circle, he said, through clenched teeth, that’s how you throw anyone off, get back on the main road when they least expect it. Satisfied, finally, he turned onto the Mass Pike ramp, and took us flying through downtown, headed west, the office blocks and convention hotels suddenly as enormous and bizarre to me as illustrations from a comic book. The seatbelt had dug itself into my left armpit; I pulled it away, gently. Slowly sensation returned to my hands and feet.
Should we call the cops?
He turned and skidded across two lanes of traffic to make the Tremont exit.
Where are we going?
Home, he said.
We turned onto a street of white clapboard rowhouses, turned a sallow yellow beneath the streetlamps. Here and there a crumbling brick apartment building, a school building behind caged windows and a cyclone fence. Boys in long white t-shirts turning lazy circles on freestyle bicycles, the handlebars of welded shiny chain. Lechonera, Pastelleria, Muebles, Comida China, Check Cashing. My eyeballs were dry and sandy around the edges; I was aware of them rotating in their sockets, newly-fashioned orbs, as if I’d been issued a replacement pair.
Nelson fiddled with the radio knob until he found an R&B station. Don’t. Go. Chasing waterfalls, he sang under his breath, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. All right, he said, that song’s over already. He switched to a college station, and the car filled with a long, low, stretched note on the bass, and Lou Reed intoning, solemnly, Jackie is just speeding away, thought she was James Dean for a day. Then I guess she had to crash. Valium would have helped that dash. I said hey, baby—
I reached over and switched it off.
Viejo J.P., he said. Egleston Square. You never been down here? The island bus does pickups over at Hennigan. Look, that’s the playground where I used to hang out. My abuela owned a house down that corner till my dad died and she had to sell it. You should be taking notes, man. His hands danced a beat against the steering wheel. The autobiography of a genuine colored person.
In the center of it all, at the corner of Columbus and Washington, he parked outside a bodega and returned with a pint of Captain Morgan’s in a brown paper bag. We passed it back and forth in silence.
I got a friend from here who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, he said, finally.
He says, just learn to speak like they do, all polite and whiny, you know what I mean, kind of uptight? And they just treat you like they’ve known you all they lives. Gays too. It’s so boring they’re desperate for whoever they can get. I’m going to move out there in September. There’s one club in the whole town and they need a DJ.
Good for you, I said. At least you have a plan.
What could I have been thinking about at this moment other than my own future? And how is it possible, you may ask, for a character such as I, pastless wonder? How is it that I could have been wishing my own death instead?
On the East Coast shit’s just too old. Isn’t that what they say about all those people out on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket? It’s like they get transparent. Like they been bleached or something. All going to the same schools, same clubs, same parties, same people, for like, four hundred years? Swear to god, it happens to everybody eventually. Dominicans too. My mother, my tios. They’ve all been here since the Fifties, practically. They get to looking kind of inbred, you know what I mean? Everyone’s all wrapped up in everyone else’s drama. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys all over again. Used to be I knew everybody that walked down this block. Thing was, I went to college, and all this shit happened had nothing to do with me. My homeboy Augustín got a married girl pregnant and her husband came after him with a machete. Old school shit. I came back and people looked at me like I was a ghost, man. It’s like, you don’t stick around, you’re not even alive anymore. Know what I’m saying?
He turned and looked at me.
Hey, what’s up with you, anyway? I don’t even know nothing about where you’re from.
It’s like you said. I swigged from the bottle and belched out the sugary-fiery taste of the rum. I’ve been bleaching so long, I turned invisible. I don’t even remember.
He pursed his lips, as if he was about to laugh, and pounded a fist on the steering wheel, shaking his head.
You really think you can get away with that? You think you’re the only one who wishes it were that easy?
What do you mean?
What I mean is, he said, yo, if you really want to disappear, genealogically speaking, you should get yourself a girlfriend who looks like me. Chinese and Jamaican, Korean and Brazilian, some shit like that. That way one of you will fit in almost anywhere. And your kids, man, they’ll just look like the future. Like that golf guy, what’s his name, Tiger Woods?
Maybe you’re right, I said. But that’s not what I meant.
No, he said, I understand what you meant.
I know he did. Wherever he is, he still does. We both do.
WE PAUSE FOR A COMMERCIAL INTERRUPTION
Around this time—‘95, ’96, the milky haze of my post-adolescence, substanceless as the foam of a skinny cappuccino—Volkswagen had a commercial for its New Beetle: If you sold your soul in the Eighties, here’s your chance to buy it back. We sneered, of course, as our parents reached out for them, slack-faced, drop-jawed, like children clutching balloon animals at the circus. The commodification of dissent, we called it.What was there to worry about, once you understood the world was only the play of signifiers? It was a matter of moving the frame slightly to one side: a hundred-dollar laptop and a little venture capital for the impoverished cotton farmers in Mali. Change is just a byproduct of making money, someone said. It doesn’t have to be such a struggle anymore.
Were we, as the magazines said, fundamentally slack, allergic to seriousness? Or were we seduced by our own metaphors: the neverending network, the flat world, god forgive us, the tipping point, the killer app? It doesn’t matter now. By the time we saw ourselves whole we had useless graduate degrees, fortunes on paper, closets full of embarrassing wedding presents. Money was the byproduct of making money, and the world was the size of a two bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment, PK VWS, EIK.
The hush that descends on the offices of a bankrupt company—the hum of one last vacuum cleaner, the screech of a razor blade chiseling a logo into little white shavings—is not the silence of the stage strewn with bodies at the end of Hamlet: not the screams of catharsis, but the grey noise of an imploded abstraction. Not life, but an interrupted, half-tumescent masturbatory fantasy of life; the abrupt ending to a bourgeois dreamtime. Who feels sorry for the pasty office worker, trudging back to his car with his carton of dusty photo frames and stained coffee mugs? Who should feel sorry? And what is a confession that goes on too long other than an act of self-annihilation, a way of making forgiveness impossible?
That we did make it across the bridge:
That we slammed into a concrete piling, did a header into the Inner Harbor;
That the Southie boys caught up with us, left us shit-kicked, concussed, bleeding from the mouths and ears;
Who’s to say I never wished for these things to happen?
But of course that’s the way with us: all our losses are imaginary. It was Nelson, not me, who was fired, when Troyer returned, and refused to believe the car had been vandalized where it sat; Nelson who forgot and refilled the tank with unleaded instead of diesel, so that it backfired and stalled, and gave him away; and then sat silently, refusing to tell the story, refusing to let me tell the story.
Every story has a scapegoat. And every story has a martyr. And, because this is an American story, as we all know, they are always, always, one and the same.
MISSION STATEMENT (FINAL DRAFT)
We weren’t saints; we were children, too; trying to locate ourselves in the shifting sands of theory and guilt, and we thought, what better place to start than pain, someone else’s pain, the pain of the dispossessed, but the truth was that all that was a distraction, a youthful dalliance, and the serious business was already ticking in our throats. We were children of the clock and of the deadline. Even the wealthiest, the most blue-blooded and trust-funded among us understood those rules. You could tattoo your face; declare yourself transgendered; become an anarchist or a Zapatista; get arrested with a truckful of cocaine; spend a year meditating in a locked room in Bhutan; sleep with prostitutes in Ciudad Juarez; and still at the magic hour, at twenty-two or twenty-five or at the outermost limit, thirty, your life would resume as if it had never been interrupted. Money flew upward, and caught us in its traps.
I was dissolved, but only for a time; I was dissolved and reconstituted, like Kool-Aid, in a more concentrated form.
I FRIEND YOU
There’s a Thompson Island counselor alumni group on Facebook, now, of course. We have among us scores of advanced degrees and fashionably scruffy toddlers. We live in Mountainview and Cambridge and Tokyo and Carroll Gardens. We teach at prep schools; we are endocrinologists; we are partners at Debevoise; we own organic farms outside Woodstock; we are married to partners at Debevoise and sit on the board of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
Isn’t it amazing!!! How much time has passed!!!
I think, again, of the children, of my charges on that unfortunate island. I think of their kneelength t-shirts stained with Kool-aid and mayonnaise. I think of their glowing skin in all its glorious shades, of their pudgy hands raised to catch me when I turned my back, crossed my arms over my chest, and toppled over. I don’t remember their names. It’s too long now, and there were too many of them. Why is it that we can never answer, truly, for the sources of our pain? I hope they survived. Who’s to say I didn’t wish they could bring me back to life, to bring blood back into my veins? I’ve said enough. I’ve said enough. I’ve said enough. I hope they forgive me for loving them.[/private]
The Night Ridge
I love you. These simple words knock against the inside of his head the same way police knock. Hard. Loveless. I love you. He sits in a backward chair by the window and watches the wide cold river run, trying like hell to remember what it means. The winter sun’s fallen low across the water over Jersey, and soon the sad pastels will bloom behind her skyline. Dusk on these cities, colors of evening, I love you, misplaced colors come to seal, like a fierce rosy paste in the sky, one more day’s end in the life of this thin misplaced soul we’ve found, this stranger at the window.
[private]He’s naked and the draft from the glass plays at his chest and knees. There’s a likeness of the Virgin on the wall. There’s a dirty stack of dishes in the sink. There’s a Sears VCR with a pile of tapes on the floor. There’s a three-speed bike by the door, and there’s the sorry white seated nude who keeps this place: Adrian Young. His fire-fighter old man long killed in a fire, his mother a vegetable somewhere in Queens.
Years since they’d carried him home from Kings County Hospital down Atlantic Avenue to Columbia and up three flights of stairs to this very room on one of the last white nights before Nineteen Seventy Six turned without apology into Seventy Seven. They heated formula on the stovetop and exchanged looks and petrified smiles and the babe breathed soft and then it wailed and choked and then it slept and they listened to the clock and stood over their pink spawn in a dry state of puzzlement. Whatever lies they’d told themselves had thrown their young souls into atrophy early on and caused them to forget how good it feels to run all night, how good it feels just to be.
But outside their apartment the Hudson kept running. And so have the years in their own greedy way. Hostages were taken and disco died and an actor president got shot through the ribs and lived and he whispered to God and his country got stranger still and rich and his subjects looked to the stars till a wall came down and everyone cried in the streets and the world bled and we watched and slept and grinned and before you could say God is dead our famous red century swung shut like a madhouse door. And one fine morning just across the harbor our skyscrapers fell, same as all things in due time, and though his folks have fallen too the child is still here, still watching from the window, his still eyes a little cloudier now, his big pretty hands a little bigger, that’s all.
Out across the river the sun has fallen from view, its pinks and coppers drowned in the eventide. It’s grown dark in the living room. His eyes are quiet. He lingers in the chair awhile waiting for nothing and then he breathes a long drama-queen breath and gets up to turn a light on.
The switch by the door clicks as he hits it. Nothing. Dead bulb. ‘Damn it,’ he says. ‘Not again,’ he says and walks on these pale legs of his through the half-dark toward the kitchenette on the other side of the room where atop his bare table stands a lamp whose shade is glass and shaped like a woman, cheap with little birds painted on, simple pink birds in flight against a hard pale sky that nobody’s moved since he way a kid.
He fingers the string dangling under the shade and tugs it and hears it click and watches the element fire in the bulb behind the birds. But then he hears another sound, a sad faint hiss that carries with it that momentary sinking of the heart which never fails to move us when we’ve had to watch a manmade thing die. ‘God damn it,’ he says and covers a mad eye with his hand and grinds his pubic bone against the table’s worn aluminium and stands here lean and paler still in the mocking dark.
This happens to him all the time. He’s told the Super and the Super’s tested the fusebox and more than once has come to take a look inside his Great Depression ceiling fixture, then behind his switches and outlets on the wall. But each time in the end the Super shakes his head and closes up his toolbox and sighs his Latin sigh and turns and looks at the tenant and swears there’s nothing wrong. So Adrian quit crying to the Super a year ago. And now when they pass in the stairwell the old man grins and lifts his good hand, fingers high, screwing his wrist in a cute charade that can mean just one thing: Does the night play tricks on you still, Maricon?
Adrian carries himself over to the gray army surplus blanket hung to act as a bedroom door, parts it with the back of his hand and passes inside. Moving through the dim musty space he doesn’t dare try the light-switch. His nerves couldn’t take another dead bulb. Enough’s enough. A long wool dress, the kind his librarian wore in grade-school, lies spread across his mattress on the floor like some prude spectre hungry for his touch. He stands over it. Then he bends down and takes the worn purple fabric in his big hands. How he’s pulling it over his naked self like a different skin, a skin he maybe likes better. His movements are curious, touched somehow with a feline grace, and now he’s back in the front room with his moon-boots on and now he’s trotting down the battered stairwell carrying his bicycle shoulder-high like a shot buddy in his weird army of one. And out into the ether at last. To ride alone the darkened streets of Red Hook. Winter streets of Brooklyn. The cold at his face. The cold at his hands. The early night wind alive under his dress.
Quiet blocks go by. Somewhere on the other side of Atlantic he coasts to a stop and swings down off his seat. Here he lays the bike lightly against the bricks. It would never cross his mind to chain it up, nobody’d steal it. Teary-eyed and shaking off the cold he walks into the store and marks the way it smells. People and plastics. Milk. Insecticide.
Traipsing along, he makes straight for the back of the place where the mean Korean who owns it keeps a pitiful selection of hardware. Here you’ll find such things as Duct-tape, box of light-bulbs. The box he finds says GE in big scripted letters and underneath these it says 40 watt, soft. Adrian gives out a strange little laughs and lifts it from the shelf and thumbs open a cardboard end and begins to transfer gently the four bulbs inside down into the big pockets of his librarian dress. His moves are deft, like some wild she-dog in moon-boots robbing eggs. Smiling at the broken surveillance camera screwed high against the wall, he turns back his face and closes the box he’d emptied and puts it back on the shelf and heads for the front of the store with his hands in the now pregnant pockets at his waist resting, just so, to mask their swollen look they’ve taken on.
At the counter he stands and looks into the face of the baffled man behind it, just the two of them in the quiet.
‘I’m looking for Doctor Strangelove,’ says Adrian.
With his drum-tight rogue’s eyes the storekeeper studies this wrong young man the night’s blown in. He’s seen this one before. Yes. This one’s been here before.
‘This no sex clinic.’
‘Could’a fooled me. Don’t be shy. I know you got it.’
‘How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.’
‘What the herr is this?’
‘This no Horrywood Video.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘You sorry arright,’ says the man, looking the shivering thief up and down. ‘Sorry sack of you know what.’
‘No Strangelove. Shame on you.’
The Korean slaps his hand down on the counter, an odd gesture that’s got to mean I’m through toying with you, and pennies chime dull in the penny-tray.
‘Get the herr out,’ he barks. ‘Get you sexy ass out and don’t come back!’
Breezing back down toward the river, the hidden lightbulbs grinding musical and soft against his hips as he peddles, a thought enters into the thief’s head and he shares it out loud with the night: It’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than forty watts to light my way.
Shifting his weight he peddles down off the sidewalk between two parking meters and crosses the street. He doesn’t care to look for traffic, there are dearer pictures in his head. A yellow taxi nearly runs him down. The cabby lays on his horn and spits muted curses at the pale rider outside in the cold but the rider just gives back an eerie grin and picks up speed and leans and turns the corner.
And so he goes, pulled numb through the biting air, his desperate spokes trying their best to flash in the raw light the street-lamps offer as they whirl by. From every direction the city blares its hard manic opera but Adrian pays it no mind. He’s got a song of his own tonight, and he begins to sing, faint in a dire falsetto the words to a song that’s haunted him all his life: Born in Red Hook Brooklyn in the year of who-knows-when, opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordion…
The late December wind gnaws at him, covets him, rifles though him till he’s excommunicated from his body altogether as from some poor cold church in the wilderness. A bitter midnight, this. A midnight of waifs and quick shadows and Christmastime prayers frozen like tattoos. A Sunday midnight of hustlers and steam off the grates and a helicopter close as hell and a dancer losing sleep and hipsters on parade and those tanker-lights pulsing down along the water’s edge where seabirds circle and cry like souls cut short.
Maybe love is but a night ride. All things that grow at the roadside rushing by, wondrous at first, flowers for Algernon, wilting faster than we know, all things made vague, softy lit, lit in a way they’d never be standing striped under God’s cold sun.
No stars over Red Hook. But our metropolitan sky, foiled though she may be, remains a shelter to this scared race of orphans lost beneath her nonetheless. And she knows what we cannot. That we’re all peddling home in the dark, the cold tears down our face, the wind like time’s own wry voice in the wheel-spokes round and round, all alone, all our lives.
Freeing a hand from the handlebar he rummages there at his waist and one by one, with the same mad joy as a bag-lady pitching bread to birds in the park, he takes up each bulb and tosses it high over his shoulder, listening close for their soft explosions in the street behind him.
Just there where the past begins. And once his pockets are empty he’ll smile thinly and clamp his knees and straighten up his barbwire spine and let go the handlebars altogether and coast down this last hill with his arms out wide. And by this pose he’ll hope to illustrate the story of his life. One more skinny thief with the wind at his palms. Born small and blown astray under the sheltering sky.[/private]
A Trip to America
‘Excuse me. Does this train go to Ames?’ Taeko Endo asked a woman reading a newspaper in one of the seats near the door.
‘Yes, it does,’ the woman answered, smiling.
Taeko thanked her and took the seat across the aisle. She put down her bag of presents and the flowers she’d bought inside the station and relaxed. She was on her way to visit Edward Hunt. He’d been her English teacher at the junior college in Tokyo and she’d been secretly in love with him ever since. [private]Two years earlier, the year she’d graduated, he’d returned to Massachusetts; now she was there to get her bachelor’s degree and to see if she could make him fall in love with her.
She looked out the window at the people passing on the platform. A few minutes later the conductor came into the car and called out something she couldn’t understand. The train started moving. Collecting the fares, the conductor made his way down the aisle toward her.
‘A round trip ticket to Ames,’ she said when he reached her.
‘That’ll be ten dollars.’
She gave him the money. He clipped a piece of blue paper and handed it to her.
‘Excuse me. What time will the train reach Ames?’
‘You don’t like to keep him waiting?’
He said this in a loud voice and the people sitting nearby laughed. It took Taeko a few seconds to get the meaning. She was finding her English was better than she’d expected but she had trouble telling when people were joking. The conductor winked at her and looked at his watch.
‘We’re running a little late, so about one-forty.’
The train slowed. The conductor announced the next station but she couldn’t understand him. The train entered a tunnel and stopped. A dozen or so people came into the car. The train started again and in a few moments it picked up speed. Taeko looked out the window. It was cloudy now; it had been sunny when she’d left the dormitory. The train passed through what she guessed was the outskirts of Boston. There were vacant lots, rundown buildings with broken windows, rusting cars with the engine or a tire missing. The train was moving fast. They went through a residential section. The houses were big but not well-kept. On many the paint had faded or peeled and there were broken fences and unmowed lawns. Children played in the yards and streets. A man smoked a cigarette in front of one of the houses. His hair was long, like Edward’s had been, and she wondered for the umpteenth time if Edward had a girlfriend. He might even be married. She’d known of no girlfriend in Japan. He was thirty years old. In Japan, if a man was thirty and unmarried, people thought there was something wrong with him. The conductor came into the car and announced the next stop.
No one from her car got off. Three people boarded and the train started moving. She looked at her watch. It was one-twenty. At the next station the woman across the aisle stood. She smiled at Taeko as she passed. In a moment the train started moving.
As the train got further from Boston, the neighborhoods improved, but they still disappointed her. She’d expected more from America. Ever since she was a little girl she’d dreamed of visiting there. The sun came out again. It was after one-thirty and she worried about missing her stop. The train had stopped twice since the woman had gotten off. At the last station half of the passengers in the car had departed. The conductor came into the car and announced the next stop. Taeko couldn’t catch the name but she knew it wasn’t Ames. He walked down to her and leaned over.
‘The next stop after this one is yours.’
He was gone before she could thank him. She drew the bag with the presents for Edward closer and gripped the handle. The train slowed and then stopped at the next station. No one got on or off. The train pulled out of the station and two minutes later the conductor announced Ames. Taeko stood, picked up her flowers and walked to the end of the car. The train stopped moving and Taeko pulled open the door. The conductor was already on the platform. He held her arm as she came down the steep steps.
‘Thank you,’ she said, smiling and bowing.
‘Tell him it was the train’s fault, not yours.’
He was up the steps by the time she figured out what he meant. She smiled and bowed again, but he wasn’t looking her way. She had to stop bowing; it wasn’t an American custom. She walked out through the parking lot to the street. From her bag she took the pocket map she’d purchased in Boston and found the page for Ames. The Hunts lived on Sycamore Street, which was off the street running in front of the station. She counted the side streets. Sycamore should be the third one.
She walked up the sidewalk, past a used car lot and a service station. The temperature had gone down in the last hour and the rain felt of air. Ahead on the right was a McDonald’s. The houses along the road were small and in poor condition. She was disappointed again. Edward had said Ames was one of the best towns in America. There was a sign for Sycamore at the corner and she turned left. She had no idea how far up the street Edward’s house was. She didn’t even know if he lived there. All she had was the address he’d given his students before leaving Japan. During the past two years she’d sent him numerous cards and letters. He’d sent her one Christmas card a year and a half earlier. When she’d arrived in Boston, she’d tried, with the help of her roommate, to look up his telephone number in the phone book. The number wasn’t listed.
Taeko could see shops ahead of her. On the right was a nearly empty parking lot. On the next block was a small park. The grass was short and green. She stopped at a red light at what seemed to be the center of town. There were stores up and down both sides of the street. Few of the stores looked open. A group of teenagers stood on the sidewalk. The light changed and she continued up Sycamore. There were more stores, another parking lot and then only houses. The yards were wide and well-kept; the houses, neat and set back from the road. Tall trees lined both sides of the road. This was her image of America.
She had been checking the house numbers. Edward’s was one-thirty-two. The numbers were in the fifties now and suddenly she was nervous. The street darkened as thick clouds moved overhead. A man and a woman holding hands walked down the other side of the street. Taeko crossed a side street. The house on the left was number eighty-four. All of the possibilities she had been mulling all week – Edward wouldn’t be home; Edward didn’t live there; Edward was married; and, worst of all, they had nothing to say to each other – were suddenly real. She crossed another side street. The numbers were in the hundreds now. Clutching the presents and flowers, she continued walking. She passed one-twenty-six, one-twenty-eight and one-thirty. Then she was standing in front of one-thirty-two. The house was brick. Along the front was a row of bushes. She went up the walk, made of different colored slabs of stone. Through the open window next to the door she could hear a television or a radio. Hunt was engraved in gold on the black mailbox. She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. A tall, blond woman opened the door. Except for her glasses and her age, she looked just like Edward. She had to be his mother.
‘Good afternoon. Are you Mrs. Hunt?’
‘My name is Taeko Endo. I was a student of Edward’s in Japan.’
The woman’s face showed no understanding. Then she smiled and opened the door.
‘You’re one of Sachi’s friends. Didn’t they tell you, honey? They’re in New York now. They moved when Eddie got the job at the college.’
‘Long Island, actually. You didn’t come all the way from Japan to see Sachi, did you?’
Taeko shook her head.
‘Well, that’s good. Did you come in from Boston?’
‘Well, come in. There’s no sense in standing outside. It’s going to rain, anyways.’
Taeko looked up at the dark sky.
‘Sachi and Eddie will be very sorry they missed you.’
Taeko stepped into the hall.
‘Come in here. I was just watching a movie. It’s no good, anyways. Tom – he’s my husband – is playing golf with his friends. I don’t know what they are going to do when the rain starts. I told him this morning it was going to rain but he never listens. Just sit down anywhere and make yourself at home. I’ll get you some coffee or would you like something else?’
Taeko shook her head.
‘Coffee is okay then?’
Mrs. Hunt went out of the room. Taeko put her bags on the floor and sat in one of the armchairs. All of the lights were on. The furniture was old. On the wall above the television there were several photographs.
Mrs. Hunt came back carrying a tray with two cups of coffee and two pieces of apple pie.
‘Here you go. I made this apple pie this morning and it’s still fresh. Sit over here. It’s easier to eat.’
She placed the tray on the coffee table. Taeko moved to the chair at the end of the table. Mrs. Hunt sat on the sofa.
‘Sachi and Eddie didn’t know you were coming?’
‘Well, that’s good. Those two have a tendency to forget. I was talking to Eddie last night and he didn’t say anything.’
She picked up the apple pie and the coffee and placed them in front of Taeko.
‘Are you staying in Boston now?’
‘And are you working?’
‘No, I’m a student.’
‘Which school are you going to?’
‘Well, that’s a very good school. One of Eddie’s cousins went there. When Sachi first came out here, she went to UMass for a while. What are you studying?’
‘Business, I hope. I’m taking some English classes this semester.’
‘What do you need to study English for? Your English is excellent.’
‘No. I can’t speak English well.’
‘I tell you it’s a lot better than Sachi’s when she first came out here. Tom and I didn’t know what to think when Eddie came back from Japan with her. At first, Eddie had to translate everything. Her English is very good now, mind you. She’s a lovely girl. Just like a daughter.’
Mrs. Hunt stopped talking to eat some pie.
‘Are you staying in the dorm?’ she asked after a moment.
‘Well, that’s convenient. And how did you get out here? I didn’t see a car.’
‘I took a train.’
‘That’s good. Help yourself. Don’t be shy.’
She motioned to the piece of pie in front of Taeko. Taeko took her first bite. It was very good.
‘How long have you been out here?’ Mrs. Hunt asked.
‘A week and you know your way around well enough to come all the way out to Ames.’
‘The pie is delicious.’
‘Thank you. Tom loves apple pie. Eddie, too, for that matter.’
Taeko took another bite.
‘What did you say your name was, honey? I’m sorry. I’m terrible at names, especially foreign ones.’
‘Taeko Endo,’ Taeko said slowly.
‘You’ll have to write it down. I’ll tell Sachi the next time I’m talking to them. I’d call now but I know they’re not home. They said they were going to the beach today. Then again, it might be raining in New York already.’
‘Let me get that address for you,’ she said, standing.
She looked out the window.
‘The rain hasn’t started yet.’
She left the room. Taeko took another bite of the pie. She was feeling bold and she stood and crossed the room to look at the photographs. On top there was a faded one of a soldier. Below it was one of Edward when he was a child and one of when he was in high school. He hadn’t changed much over the years. There was a little girl. She must be Edward’s sister although Taeko had never heard him mention any sister. Then Taeko saw the wedding picture. She leaned forward. It was several seconds before she recognized the bride. It was Sachiko Nakano. She’d been in Taeko’s class at the junior college but Taeko hadn’t known her well. Taeko heard Mrs. Hunt’s footsteps. She came into the room with a piece of paper.
‘Would you like to see the wedding pictures? I have some upstairs somewhere. I’d have to look for them.’
She came over to where Taeko was standing.
‘Who’s the little girl?’ Taeko asked on impulse.
‘That was Kathy, Edward’s little sister. She died of leukemia when she was ten. Cancer.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Well, it was a long, long time ago.’
‘Sit down and finish your pie,’ she said. ‘I made a copy of that address for you.’
‘Do you mind if I use the bathroom?’
‘Go ahead, honey. It’s on the right as you go out the door.’
Taeko stayed talking with Mrs. Hunt for nearly an hour. It was just three o’clock when she got up to leave. Mrs. Hunt wanted her to stay until it was time for the train but Taeko told her she wanted to look around the town.
‘It was very nice talking to you,’ Mrs. Hunt said at the door. ‘I get lonely in the afternoons. Make sure you get in touch with Sachi and Eddie and we’ll have you over for a good American dinner the next time they’re down. And thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.’
‘You’re welcome. And thank you very much for the apple pie and coffee.’
‘You’re welcome. Tom would run you into Boston if he were home. But you never know what time he’ll get back from golf. They like to have a few drinks afterwards. I don’t drive myself.’
‘Thank you. Goodbye.’
Taeko went down the steps. At the end of the walk she turned and waved.
‘You’d better hurry if you want to beat the rain,’ Mrs. Hunt called.
Taeko started off. At the corner she looked back but Mrs. Hunt was gone. There was a breeze and she could smell the ocean. The clouds were black. She still had the bag of presents for Edward. She hadn’t known Sachiko Nakano well. She’d been one of the rich girls who’d dressed up every day and who’d had their own cars. She hadn’t seemed very serious about studying. She was beautiful, though. Tall with long legs. Her eyes were big, too. Not like a Japanese’s. At school there’d been a rumor she modeled. Taeko was glad Sachiko and Edward hadn’t been there. She wouldn’t have known what to say to Sachiko. And she might have thrown the piece of pie in Edward’s face. She’d take a pass on that good American dinner. She’d liked his mother, though.
At the town center Taeko stopped. The dark clouds made it seem much later than three o’clock. The same group of teenagers was there, or maybe it was a different group. A bookstore in the middle of the block was open and she walked down to it. She looked at the books for a few minutes. Before leaving, she found Newsweek in the magazine rack. In Japan she’d read it faithfully and she wanted to start again. She paid and went out. She continued down the street as far as the last store. Then she crossed and came up the other side. Only the ice cream parlor was open. One of the teenagers was leaning back against a car, eating an ice cream cone. Taeko was almost past the shop when she decided she wanted an ice cream. When she came out with it, she saw the first big drops of rain. They were coming down slowly and there was no need to hurry. She turned right at the corner. She couldn’t believe Edward had married Sachiko Nakano. Taeko had read him completely wrong. She wondered how long they’d been going out in Japan. He’d been their English teacher in both their first and second year. The rain was still coming down lightly when she reached the station. A girl was smoking on a bench. The smell made Taeko want a cigarette. She’d quit six months earlier. She walked out to the platform and looked at the rain coming down on the tracks. Deep down she’d known all along she had no chance. A fool’s errand was what they said in English. She’d been on a fool’s errand. She started crying.
The real rain started when she was on the train. The wind blew it against the window. All the way back, she stared out, thinking about Edward and Sachiko. Wet, the rundown buildings near Boston didn’t look so bad. This was the country she’d dreamed of visiting.[/private]
Amboy: A Walk in the Ruins
Amboy is a place in the Mojave desert, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles. I hesitate to call it a town: undoubtedly that’s what it used to be, and maybe once a town is always a town, but right now, and for the twenty years or so that I’ve been visiting, its population wouldn’t qualify it as a village, not even as a hamlet. There are SUVs driving down the freeway with larger populations than Amboy, and the freeway is precisely the reason for Amboy’s demise.
Amboy sits along a stretch of Route 66, the Mother Road, the place allegedly, formerly, to get your kicks, and when, in the 1950s, the Interstate 40 was built, some ten miles to the north, the serious cross-country traffic went there, leaving Amboy behind, to fade and desiccate, and remain a kind of rough time capsule. But if I hesitate to call Amboy a town, I hesitate even more to call it a ghost town. The place has certainly been abandoned and neglected. Parts of it have certainly decayed and crumbled, and parts of it do indeed lie in ruin, but not all of it, and not all of it conspicuously. The most important parts, the most eye-catching, don’t look like ruins at all, at least not at first glance.
What’s there looks, from a distance, remarkably well-preserved. There’s a school, a gas station, a church, a motel, a graveyard, a post office: the last of these is even fully functional, but a close look reveals considerable ruin elsewhere. That church, for instance, which is actually a bare meeting hall, has a wooden tower with a cross on top, and although the walls are bright white and appear recently painted, the tower is leaning precariously, a little more every time I visit, and I don’t doubt that one day I’ll arrive there and find that gravity has completed its work. Part of the motel consists a long row of neat, minimalist white cabins that look intact, and even habitable. But they’re not. A closer look reveals that these cabins, which you can walk right into, are empty, with no furniture, no plumbing, no power, with the tatters of old linoleum on the floor, many windows smashed, broken Route 66 Cola bottles strewn around the floor.
The gas station probably can’t be considered a ruin at the moment, since it currently has gas for sale, though there were many years when it didn’t. There was a period when dangerous-looking yet surprisingly friendly bikers would hang out there on Sunday afternoons, selling only slightly over-priced beer from an ice-filled cooler. They did a reasonable trade, I think. Plenty of people stop in Amboy, it’s hard not to. Right between the gas station and the motel is one of the greatest, stop-you-in-your-tracks, roadside advertising signs I, or anybody else, has ever seen.
The sign says Roy’s Motel Café, and it’s a classic all right, tall, formidable, red, black and blue, two rectangles and a downward-pointing arrowhead, a smack you in the eye typeface, and more to the point, right in the middle it says ‘vacancy.’ Many a photographer (not least William Egglestone, who photographed it back in the day when there was often a classic black and white police cruiser parked outside), has embraced that visual and verbal pun: gas, food and lodging here, nothing but vacancy down the road. Is that a bit too obvious, a bit too much of a cliché? You bet. And so the sign has appeared in a endless movies, music videos, TV commercials, and photoshoots.
This is the secret of Amboy’s success. Although it has defining elements of ruin, it has other elements that define it as a stage or movie set, as a moody, evocative backdrop, as a location. This inevitably creates certain problems for people (such as me) who yearn a certain (and admittedly contested) authenticity when they’re walking in the desert and/or walking in ruins.
In fact there’s at least one place nearby where people do some more or less conventional, and fairly strenuous, desert hiking. The Amboy Crater is just a few miles to the west, an extinct cinder cone volcano, two hundred and fifty feet high, surrounded by a black lava field. It’s a popular enough walking location that I’ve even seen tour buses unloading some extraordinarily well-dressed sightseers there, though I didn’t stick around to see how far they walked.
But let’s face it, an extinct volcano in the middle of the desert barely fits within even the broadest notion of ruin. If you’re looking for ruin, and I usually am when I’m in the desert, you have to look elsewhere, and as it happens Route 66 is not the only transport artery to run through Amboy. There’s a railway line too, a cluster of tracks that run parallel to the road, a couple of hundred yards to the south, and the railroad is still very much in business. If you hang out in Amboy for half an hour or so, chances are you’ll see a couple of immensely long freight trains roll through, the initials BNSF on the locomotives, standing for Burlington Northern Sante Fe.
Railways always strike me as the most appealing and picturesque of forms. Who doesn’t like to watch the trains go by? Who doesn’t like to stare down the tracks towards the vanishing point? And yet cities, buildings, landscapes, even small desert towns, so often turn their back on the railway. Trains thread through the bad parts of town, behind high walls and fences, in cuttings and tunnels, present but not seen and not regarded. Meanwhile the land beside the tracks becomes a no man’s land where debris collects, where things get dumped, where graffiti are largely tolerated because at least they’re not somewhere more conspicuous. In the desert however, the railways have nowhere to hide.
And whereas in England every yard of track is fenced off in an attempt to make it inaccessible and supposedly safe, here in the wide open spaces of the desert, nobody has the time, energy or money to fence off all those thousands of miles. A man can walk right up to the tracks, walk across them, along them if he wants to. Oh sure there’ll be the occasional no trespassing sign, but who’s going to take any notice? Who’s going to police it? And of course dumping goes on there with a casual lack of inhibition. Down by the tracks in Amboy there used to be a sign that said no dumping, standing guard over a great heap of garbage.
And let’s face, it the railway people themselves are a messy bunch. In Amboy there’s a sprawling three-sided corral where they’ve stored, or at least stashed, various bits of miscellaneous railroad hardware; posts, coils, wiring, chunks of lumber, those glass and porcelain electrical connectors, though those tend to be smashed if they’re not stolen. You can walk into the corral, pick around, and although there isn’t a sign saying ‘help yourself,’ equally there’s no sign saying ‘keep out,’ and you can’t help thinking that if you had a use for some scrap fence posts or wiring, the guys from the BNSF would understand, and definitely wouldn’t put much effort into stopping you.
As I turned my back on the preserved charm of Roy’s Motel Café and Route 66, I was aware that maybe I wasn’t so much walking in ruins as strolling around in mess, performing the pedestrian equivalent of making mud pies, as I admired stacks of old sleepers and heaps of ballast. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s good to aim a little higher, so when I noticed a fine, low slung industrial building maybe a third of a mile away along the tracks, I decided to walk over and explore. I accepted that this wasn’t ruin exploration on the grandest scale, but we all have to do what we can.
From the road, when I set off walking, I couldn’t have said what the building was intended for, something to do with the railway obviously, perhaps loading and unloading, possibly concerned with storage, though there was no indication that anything was going on there at the moment. At first I thought it was made of white painted metal, and the paint had rusted or flaked off, but as I got a little closer I realized the walls were broad slabs of wood, and the paint had peeled away in long vertical strips giving the effect of corrugations. Up against the side of the building I could see storage tanks, some palates, a mobile scaffolding tower, and there was a chain link fence around the whole thing, serious but hardly impenetrable. There didn’t seem to be much in there that anyone would want to steal. I guessed they were trying to keep out vandals and graffiti sprayers, but since I was neither of the above I eyed the fence and wondered if I should do a little creative trespass, shimmy over and go inside.
I walked a circuit of the perimeter. A railway siding ran alongside the back of the building within the fence, and there was no sign of life or activity anywhere. The big roller doors on the building were raised and you could see there was nothing at all inside. I got the impression that if this place was still being used for anything, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t recent. I decided I’d go in.
And then suddenly I realized the place wasn’t deserted after all. Around the side next to some half-demolished walls that looked like they might have belonged to a coal bunker, there was a single, pristine, dinky little golf cart with a canopy, a thing wildly out of place in this battered, industrial desert scene, and sitting in the cart was a huge man, dressed all in white. As I remember it he was wearing a solar topi, though I think I may have made that up in retrospect: it may just have been a floppy sunhat, but nevertheless the overall effect was undoubtedly grand, spooky and strangely ethereal. He looked both ghostly and angelic, unworldly, very, very still, not remotely right for this location. He was also wearing wraparound shades, and he was smoking a long thin cigar, and he reminded me, improbably, of Marlon Brando, certainly not as he was in The Wild One, and only partly as he was in Apocalypse Now, but rather as he appeared in The Island of Dr Moreau, where he dresses in white gauze, presumably to hide his bulk, with his face coated in white pancake for reasons known only to himself. I’m prepared to believe that time and my imagination may have glorified the stature and strangeness of my man in Amboy, but not by much. His presence seemed genuinely uncanny and alarming. A man who can invoke Marlon Brando, a ghost and an angel, while sitting in a golf cart obviously has an undeniable aura.
I think he must have seen me before I saw him, because I only spotted him as I was reaching for a handhold on the chain link. The sunglasses ensured there was nothing so unsubtle as eye-contact, but he turned his head just a fraction in my direction, then back again, the subtlest admonitory shake of the head, as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I wouldn’t do that if you know what’s good for you.’
I like to think I know what’s good for me. I stepped away from the fence, calmly, unhurriedly, walked on, went about my business, and eventually I headed back to the car, parked up by Ray’s sign. My wife was waiting for me there: she’d been off in the other direction looking at the graveyard (it’s good to have related but separate interests), and she asked me what I’d been doing.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I think I saw the god of the ruins of Amboy.’
‘Was he on a train?’
‘Was he walking?’
‘He was on a golf cart.’
‘Makes sense. What’s that in your hand?’
What I had in my hand was one of my great desert finds. Yes, yes I pick stuff up in the desert and take it home with me. Not so long ago it was thought of as perfectly OK to collect rocks or fossils or antlers or even plant specimens from the desert: now this is regarded as environmentally unsound, as messing with nature, as pure evil. So now I only pick up stuff that doesn’t belong there, that’s been left of dumped by humans: hub caps, unfathomable innards from bits of machinery, the occasional abandoned children’s toy. The best stuff is up on the wall of my garage. And what I’d picked up that day, after my encounter by the chain link fence was half of one of those diamond-shaped metal signs that they put on the back of vehicles, in this case railway cars, warning of dangerous cargoes. This one, in full, would have read ‘Spontaneous Combustion,’ but since I only had the left hand half, it reads Sponta Combu – a great name for something, a band, a spy, a guru, an Indian fusion dish – or maybe one of the 99 names of the god of the ruins of Amboy.
On mornings like this as I drive toward work at 6:21 am
4th Street stretches ahead
as I stick my arm out my window and roll back
my sunroof as the sky begins to lighten
my long-dead father
waves to me from a barber chair as the red white and blue pole spins
ready to tell me never-before-told stories of riding boxcars in the depression
in the donut shop window waving his arms with wild eyes delivering a speech
to the rest of the donut munchers knows the secret
to world peace
didn’t die but is a minor aging poet with long gray hair walking to a beat in his head
he wants me to get him a reading
at the Long Beach Poetry Festival
he sticks out his thumb and I wave at him but keep on rolling because I will always
have my chances to stop and give him a ride and listen to him
Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane as he waits at a bus stop
of albondigas soup from the red brick Honduras Kitchen
in orange robes leaving the monastery to walk down sidewalks and see
gas stations and old men walking dogs
in the sunrise
standing on a corner kicking the heroin and booze for good with a cup of black coffee
in his fist
and the next great jazz breakthrough
in his head
I could ride 4th Street forever
but I turn and head for the freeway
to roll into work
on a morning like this I am not just another factory worker
but the only machinist poet on earth
the one no High School
or university or job ad ever
and there is nothing on earth I would rather do than pick up a wrench
and wonder who
will step out of the shadows to stroll down 4th Street
See Fred Voss, Joan Jobe Smith and friends at the Betsy Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BL on 13 July at 7:30.pm. Admission: free.
Carter Jackson — Rat Hunting
Colusa was really different from San Francisco. But while I was there I discovered one of my great passions, a sport I’d never heard of before: rat hunting.
I grew up duck hunting. Which I never really liked because you had to wake up at some obscene hour, wade through a freezing swamp and sit in a dark cold blind that reeked of stale farts and was covered in tobacco spit. Then you waited very quietly—absolutely no talking allowed—for what seemed like hours for some tiny lonesome bird to fly by. Usually, at this point I would be fixing a cuticle or counting the cigar butts at the bottom of the blind and miss the entire event, which so often spurred that cool frustration from my dad—I was clearly “Not Paying Attention”—and the subsequent reminder that I was very lucky to be out there with him given that I am, after all, a girl.
Pheasant hunting was much more my speed. You went at a decent hour, like in the afternoon; you were out walking around, and the birds were big, and you could chatter as much as you like. Either way, duck hunting or pheasant hunting, I can’t say I was a very good shot. Rat hunting, on the other hand, I was great at.
I first heard of rat hunting at a birthday party after I’d been married and living in Colusa for a few months. The birthday boy, Donny, was complaining that the rats were eating all his rice seeds before they had the chance to take root. The obligatory discussion about the cheapest and most effective rat poison on the market ensued, and more Coors Lights were consumed. About an hour later, Donny decided that he had had enough of his own party and that he was getting his gun and taking off to go rat hunting. I looked at my then-husband and said, “Oh this, I have to see.”
In Colusa, there was no need to go home to get your guns, everybody kept them in their pick-ups. So two girls and thee guys piled into Donny’s Chevy along with three guns and a case of Coors Light. We took off for the rice fields. Given that we’d all get a DUI, we took the back roads.
I have to be honest. Rats really scared me. They move fast, have long hairless tails, ugly toothy faces and regardless of what my mother said, I’ve always thought that they were nowhere near as afraid of me as I was of them. In fact, I thought they were out to get me. This made the idea of hunting them down all the more thrilling. Really conquering one’s fear.
The how-to’s of rat hunting. There was an old story about my ex-husband’s uncle who spent the summer driving a tractor and living in a one-room country house. Legend had it, he came home bombed one night and walked in on a whole slew of rats going crazy eating everything in his house. He got himself so worked up over all the rats that he took out his pistol and blasted twenty holes in the walls trying to “teach those little fuckers a lesson”. Now the rat hunting that I experienced was an outdoor sport, rather than an indoor one, that used shotguns and shells, rather than pistols with bullets.
The best hunting was in rice fields right after the seed was flown on and before it took root. Rice fields are long rectangles separated by little levee roads and the rats liked nibbling the seed on the edge of one field then running across the road to nibble the seed of another field. All the hunter had to do was walk along the side of the pick up while the driver slowly creeped along the road. The lights from the pick-up got the rats moving, and when one came into your line of sight, you just shot. This seemed easier said than done.
As we were driving out, we passed what was fondly called the Fields of Death. These fields absolutely stunk of dead animal. For most farmers, the killing of rats was a purely economic equation. Were the rats going to eat enough of the crop to justify the cost of the rat poison and its application? The answer for most farmers entailed putting on some rat poison, but not nearly enough to kill all the rats. It was all about return on investment. Mike, the owner of the Fields of Death, wasn’t concerned with ROI, he flat-out wasn’t rational about rats anymore. He felt that the rats had declared war on him personally and he spent every dime he could on buying up all of the rat poison in the county to cover his fields with it. Mike’s fields were located right off of Interstate 5 and for about three miles in each direction all you could smell was dead animal. For me, having the private knowledge that this smell was due to thousands of dead rotting rats had a tendency to kick in the old gag reflex.
As we drove by and I gagged into my Coors Light, Donny decided that we could hunt some fields that were out of smelling distance from Mike’s. We bumped over more dirt roads and finally arrived at our hunting grounds. We had two 12 gauges and a 20 gauge. I won’t shoot with a 12 because its kick hurts my shoulder, and most men wouldn’t be caught dead with a 20 gauge so we two girls shared it. Unlike the guys, we played rock-paper-scissors for who had to go first, not who got to go first. She was just as freaked out by the rats as I was, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that both of us would be out on the road alone.
I lost and got out of the pick-up. My husband gave me a handful of shells and told me not to shoot too far ahead. While in the safety of the truck’s cab, I thought up a few hunting strategies.
I could walk next to the window of the pick-up, feeling the security of the driver’s company but actually walking in the dark—therefore leaving an opening for the rats to sneak-up and bite my ankles without me noticing. Or I could walk out in front of the pick-up, bathed in the security of the headlights, but out of easy voice contact with the driver. This would leave me open to the possibility of hundreds of rats forming a posse and launching a full scale eating attack on me, piranha style. The third option of sitting on the hood of the pick-up was never viable for me. First, it didn’t accomplish the moment by moment face-your-fears element of the hunt that I craved. And second, the results could be much more disastrous. If the driver braked hard, I could go flying off the hood and get run over by the truck. This would leave me paralyzed, under the truck, in the dark, but aware enough to feel the rats feasting on my maimed extremities. I thought that I would alternate between the first two strategies, switching whenever I got too freaked out.
So, I stood at the side of the pick-up talking to Donny and hoping every so often so that I wasn’t such a predictable target for the sneaky rats.
Out came a big fat rat about 20 yards ahead. It was hauling across the road and just as I lifted the gun to lead it and shoot (like you’re supposed to do in duck hunting), it stopped.
Then there was another, this time the little sucker was just strolling across the road. I had all the time in the day. I lifted my gun again and shot, a good clean shot that nailed it. Boom. The rat actually blew up. It was amazing. You know when you go trap shooting and you hit a clay pigeon straight on? It just shatters into a million little pieces. That was this rat. Gone. Shattered.
Ah, the rush of the kill.
I looked at Donny. He looked at me. We were both grinning from ear to ear. He knew what was at work. I was coming down with rat hunting fever.
No sooner had I reloaded my gun when there were more rats. Actually at any given time there were no less than ten rats within eyesight. I could just keep shooting and reloading. It was no problem if I missed, because there was always another to take its place. Sometimes I could even kill three or four in one shot.
The best was when the rats just sat there in groups nibbling on the side of the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, smugly thinking that I couldn’t hit them for all the tea in China. Ahh, the satisfaction of raising my gun and wiping that smirk right off their little rat faces. Watching them all be blown into oblivion. Conquering.
This was fun. Granted, I was still a little freaked about being attacked by the rats, that feeling didn’t hold a candle to the excitement, the pure thrill of the hunt.
I shot about fifteen rats and thought that I should probably pass my gun back to the other girl for her turn. Then I thought, “Naa, let her ask for the gun.” I shot another fifteen rats before she asked if she could have a turn.
“Sure, just a second, let me just get that group up there.”
“Hang on, I just want to try for those guys.”
“In a minute, do you see them? They’re just begging me to nail them.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve never even been duck hunting.”
“My aren’t you getting pushy—have another Coors.”
“Donny, your girlfriend is a little uptight isn’t she?”
Finally, I ran out of shells.
When I turned to my husband for more, he gave me that look. The one that meant, “Not on your life. You will share come hell or high water.”
He pried the gun out of my hands and handed it to the other girl, gave her some shells and explained to her how to shoot.
I sulked in the front seat for a few minutes. Then I watched her hunting and realized that I was the better shot. I was the born rat huntress.
Carter Jackson is Californian who came to London for a three month work gig… eight years ago. She met Mr. Perfect, who turned out to be a Croydon boy, and now happily lives in South London with him and their two kids. In addition to writing and her family, she enjoys working for the same company that originally brought her over.
Rob McClure Smith – Every Pitcher Tells A Story
It took the combined efforts of Rich and MacPherson’s maid to pour the little man into his clothing. They shuffled him out the door braced between them. The windows were smothered in the thorn bright fire of bougainvillea. There were pepper and bottlebrush trees, a too-high cypress hedge, a fish pool with lotuses around which fat Japanese carp slivered a sloshing yellow. MacPherson walked on a driveway wet from the fog of the night before as if on ice skates.
The southern California sunlight sucked the color out of everything, orange no longer quite orange, leaving all nebulous, each object acquiring the vague unmoving quality of a thing shimmered to stillness and in the distance lending a cool desert clarity to the sun-baked Santa Monicas. The morning diamond-bright but milky, mint odorless here, a senseless place, a landscape washed out like a canvas, shadows off, displaced. It didn’t sit right with Rich, this unreality of deserts abutting oceans.
MacPherson was laid out with care across the backseat of Reisman’s silver baby Bentley. Two young Mexicans stopped work to watch the smoothing out of their employer. They had been spreading fertilizer on a lawn green as Astroturf.
“Golpe los. . . hojas,” grunted MacPherson.
“No entiendo,” said the maid.
“This is a person is wanting to make a movie in South America?” Reisman nodded confidentially at the gardeners. “You suppose these boys are legal, Mac?”
“You suppose ah give a crap?” said MacPherson, trying to subdue his seatbelt. “Country wis built by immigrants, so ah hear.”
“Best not to mess with the INS,” said Reisman. “Country’s been built for a while. It’s a touch up job now.” He turned the ignition over. “It got finished in the seventies.”
The producer backed out the long driveway, on either side banks of red geraniums and gillyflowers and chrysanthemums in symmetrical beds. The leather of the car seats was sticky-hot and smelled wonderful. Implausible palm trees loomed in the street. The sign on the hills made Rich think of Peggy Entwistle. Which letter had she climbed? Could a suicide climb an O? Which would he choose?
A hand pinched his shoulder, frightening him.
“Ah only came oot cause mah sister Aimee wis here.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister, Mac,” said Reisman.
“Duffy’s a definite, by the way,” said Reisman.
“How’d you manage that?” asked Rich.
“Oh, it wasn’t hard,” said Reisman. “If your star likes one thing more than money it’s parts that can win Academy Awards — crazy people, psychopaths, idiot savants, the differently abled.”
“Drooling crippled loonies,” added MacPherson. “There’s a surefire winner.”
Reisman looked at Rich. “Don’t ever forget that movies began as entertainment for illiterates.”
“Is it the Pole right enough then?”
“Aw, Christ oan a bike.”
“Just you behave is all, Mac. It isn’t too much to ask.”
“Yes, it is,” said Rich.
The office was white. The carpet white, curtains white, desk white. Chairs of white wood, lamps of white crystal, a blizzard of a room, a creamy cube but for the incandescent redness of the quarter-moon glasses of wine on the white tray, like apples half-buried in snow, and the insistent prickly green of the cacti.
The cacti were taller than the humans.
The executive whom Rich presumed “The Pole” wore tight black jeans, a work shirt and cowboy boots, which did not complement his thin paisley tie and oval sunglasses. He perched spraddlelegged atop his desk. He had very outgoing teeth.
The development girl had a pinkish big mouth, a jot pinched, straight bangs and square-rimmed glasses. It was her job to seat the visitors and circulate the wine.
Reisman greeted him. “How’s that divorce coming then?”
“Which one?” said the Pole, with no trace of accent. He pointed at their wineglasses. “Part of the settlement. Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac ’96. It sports mineral aromas of mint and black currant and…” He looked at the ceiling. “…its silky texture lingers in the mouth.”
“It’s good,” said Reisman.
“I don’t drink anymore,” the Pole declaimed. “I got myself clean.”
There followed an awkward silence.
“Big doings at MCA, eh?”
“What you hear?” The Pole leaned in. “Something good you got?”
“Stadler to Vice-Executive, Kellerman out. Jimmy T to Warner’s.”
“How’d he pull that?” The Pole frowned, removed his glasses and squinted at the lenses, put them back on. His eyes had been like cut glass. “Makes you wonder who you have to screw to get off this train.”
“You’re looking good but,” offered Reisman. “Working out you must be? Look at this man will you?”
“Know what I’m into now?” said the Pole. “Dahn yoga. It’s changed my life. It’s all about the breathing. I never knew about breathing. It’s all the good stuff they don’t tell you. You go through life, man, and you’re not even breathing. You just get the body positioned right, see, then work the postures.” He duly demonstrated, pushing down on his knees. “There are five big ones. The stretching helps you release stagnant energy in the lower abdomen.”
MacPherson whispered in Rich’s ear. “Back in Glesca we call that farting.”
“Here,” said the Pole, pawing his stomach, “is the Dan Jeon, the energy center. I haven’t been the same since I got synced with my Dan Jeon. You guys should try it, seriously.”
“I might do that,” said Reisman.
“Get yourself in touch with your second Chakra.”
“I’m hearing you.”
The Pole extracted from his pocket a set of black and gold cards, which the girl distributed. “There’s centers all over the Hills now. That’s the best I’m giving you there. What you got in your hand is invite only.”
They all studied their cards politely.
“’Awaken the healer within. Develop it. Master it. Heal yourself, your family, society, and the earth.’ Sam M. tells me Dahn is this Korean cult. But you just take from it what you need. It’s yoga, right? No need to get all bent out of shape about it. Hey, see that hat over there?” He pointed at a fedora hung on a peg dead center on the wall. “Jack Nicholson gave that to me.”
“The actor?” MacPherson asked, malevolently.
“Yes, the actor.” The Pole offered MacPherson his gash of a mouth. “Good to see you, Mac. Love your work. An artist at the top of his game. That’s the consensus. I was just saying how ‘Whack and Smack’ is a movie that keeps giving and giving.”
“Amazing film,” added the girl.
“Variety says this man here is the best director working,” said Reisman.
“Ah widnae go that far,” noted MacPherson. “But ah’m definitely in the top one.”
“And that last movie…” said the Pole, “…the Zombies…zombie flick.”
He looked at the girl, snapping his fingers.
“Nightwalkers,” she said.
“It’s shite,” said MacPherson.
“You know the bit when the kids gets trapped in the S.U.V. and the zombies smash in the windows and make that wugawuga noise? Shit-scary. Wugawuga.”
“It’s a massive pile of shite,’ MacPherson. “Chophouse schlock.”
The Pole consulted a sheet scotch-taped to his desk. “40 million budgeted, world wide grosses of 150? Wugawuga man. Wugawuga.”
“What Mac means is he doesn’t rate it with the new work,” Reisman said.
“Well, I’m here to hear is why I’m here.” The Pole inclined his head towards the girl. “You read it, dollface, right?”
The girl had Rich’s script in her lap. It was dog-eared and blue-penciled.
Suddenly the Pole exploded off his desk like a gymnast off a pommel to commence rummaging in a cupboard. He extracted a tall aluminum stick embedded in a light wooden base. There was a toy, resembling a woodpecker, at the summit, wobbling. The Pole prodded with his finger at the bird, causing it to rock and so begin a downward course, its tiny tin beak pecking at etched holes in the pole each step of its descent. It emitted a hollow clinking. Rich reckoned it would take ten minutes for the bird to reach the bottom. That was what they had. It was starting to make sense. Now he knew what the pole was.
“Action,” the Executive said.
“Action is the word. Action-adventure.” Reisman blurted the words with startling rapidity. “Also an odd-couple buddy job. Set in South America, historical, but in the positive swordfight way. Premise: European soldier-adventurers set out to take over the Isthmus of Panama. Buccaneer types, think Pirates of the Caribbean, sail from Scotland on a ship called The Rising Sun.”
“Scotland?” queried the Executive.
“It’s this place in the North of Britain, near Norway,” muttered MacPherson.
“Rising Sun. I like that. Name of the movie?”
“No,” Rich said.
“Who are you again?”
“Co-writer,” said MacPherson. “Seeing as how ah’m functionally illiterate.”
“Maybe,” interrupted Reisman. “It could be called Rising Sun.”
“That has been used,” said the girl. “A prior taken.”
“Anyways,” resumed Reisman, with a glance at the woodpecker, “our crew get to this colony in Panama, only to find it deserted. Ruins. No one. Nothing. Mystery.”
“A plague?” said the Executive.
“Something picks them off one by one? Like in Predator?”
“One of them is a war hero, making a new start, sick of the killing, like Eastwood in Unforgiven.”
The bird oscillated down the pole, clunking methodically.
“Turns out the Spanish have blockaded the bay. Bad guys. Inquisition, auto-de-fes, all that jazz. We see a torture scene. Nasty lot. Make Jigsaw look like Mother Theresa. Hero figures when they land the Spanish will attack. He’s a cool cat though, advised by this old guy, odd couple thing, jokey in the Gibson-Glover way, before they went mental, says they have to attack, take the enemy by surprise. He doesn’t want to fight, but sometimes a man just got to, right?”
“Right,” said the Executive.
“Like the Coward of the Country,” noted MacPherson.
“So he marches into the jungle, allies with the Indians, who have it in for the Spanish too on account of their habit of making them slaves and all. Scots and Indians battle the Spanish, spectacular, like Last of the Mohicans, only with more decapitations.”
The Executive looked bored, offering a flat stare at the descending bird.
“They rebuild the colony. But the bad guys blockade them. No escape. No supplies. Surrounded. ‘End up eating rats’ type of siege. Hero is wounded. They surrender. But they’re such brave bastards that the Spanish let them march out under their flag. Bagpipes. Hero refuses to surrender though, slips past the Spanish cruisers in a canoe. Suspenseful, right? Gets home, everyone’s upset, but he up and addresses parliament. Makes this massive great speech about…”
“That it?” the Executive yawned cavernously. “I’m not seeing this. There’s no hard concept.”
“It’s like Braveheart meets Unforgiven,” Reisman summarized, raising two fingers. “With a bit Apoclaypse Now mixed in.”He added a third digit.
“They wear kilts? These scotch people?”
“They could. If you think it’s a selling point.”
“It’s a love story too but,” said MacPherson, taking his turn as rehearsed. “See they jist don’t huv an alliance wi’ the Indians. They live wi’ them. Go native. Yir man hooks up wi’ an Indian wumman. Gorgeous as hell. He’s never had that raw animal thing. First time they do it, she ties him up. He’s got the crap oan. Then she gits nekkid as a jaybird and crawls ower him wi’ a knife, holds this blade tae his throat, ither parts of his anatomy. Man’s never been that turned oan. Sex and death that close opens him up. Then the two of them go at it like demented bunnies. Same thing happened tae me in Vegas last Christmas.”
The Executive was more interested. “I want you to know,” he said, “that we must have naked breasts in this kind of movie four times.”
MacPherson clouted Rich on the knee. “The Indians wander around naked, he contributed. “They are close to nature. I mean, they are savages, but into the rhythm of the universe. They’ve all found their energy centers.”
The Executive nodded sagely.
“They’re connected to the earth, trees, dirt. They swim naked in limpid pools. They know how to breathe right. They suck in the universe and the stars.” Out the corner of his eye, Rich saw Reisman frantically motioning him to stop.
“Plus them being buttnaked saves a fortune oan costumes,” added MacPherson.
“I’m still not seeing this,” said the Executive. “It sounds like ‘The Mission.’ Remember ‘The Mission’?” He shook his head sadly. “Peter Horner got canned. It had Bobby De Niro too. Even Bobby couldn’t save that turkey. ‘Even I couldn’t save that turkey,’ he says to me. You can’t make a prestige movie like this without a star, people.”
“We got one,” said MacPherson.
The bird ceased pecking and rolled over, as though mortally wounded. It was connected to the pole by some wheel mechanism.
“Sir Terry Duffy’s on board.”
“Duffy? You’re blowing sunshine up my pants here! What I’m getting pitched is a small movie. 15 million projected.”
“He’s doing it,” shouted MacPherson. “He’s a patriot and he wants tae do it for me.” The little Scotsman, green eyes ablaze, looked frighteningly messianic.
“I think part of the hesitation here is we have to assume that no star is willing to spend up to three months in the jungle,” proffered the girl.
“It’s in the jungle,” said the Executive. “What the hell? The jungle? Why didn’t someone say? Let me see that.”
The girl handed him the script. He stared at the first page.
“What’s EXT again? I can never remember.”
MacPherson covered his face with his hands.
“Quit that,” snarled Reisman.
“It begins ‘ext, jungle, night. Jungle? Monkeys and shit? That means rain people. You can’t get in and out. Nightmare logistics. Budget-buster.” The Executive sucked air through his teeth. “I don’t want ever to see ‘ext, jungle, rain, night.”
“We’re slipping it to you early,” said Reisman. “See, there’s interest from Paramount. Danny Alvarez.”
“That slimeball would be interested,” said the Executive, darkly.
“You guys creamed them last year.”
“We handed them their ass in a sling. That Russell-Crowe-as-a-master-chef-thing tanked. I could have predicted that.”
“I bet you could,” said Reisman. “See, Danny is looking for a prestige project for next Fall. Plus with the action element. . .”
The Executive was thoughtful. “That place is so needy, man.”
“I have questions,” interrupted the girl, brightly. “I’ve read the draft script a few times now.”
“Shoot,” said Reisman, looking jittery.
“Well,” she began, “It needs a serious character polish. I don’t see the character’s psychological journey mapped. I like the last scene when he makes the big speech. It’s Capra-esque, old-fashioned but moving. But unprepared?”
“We’re talking a limited treatment here,” said Rich. “Once the other writers…”
“I think we need to see the seeds of character change earlier. I see the three-act structure, the beats and rhythm, but the second act crisis never gets resolved. And the bad guy — the Spaniard captain — never gets proper payoff either.”
“You know, that’s exactly what we’re revising right now,” Rich lied.
The room went quiet for a moment. A white clock ticked.
“What is Crapperesque?” asked the Executive. “Say, Jasper Lillee will not be a consideration for shooting is a given, right?”
Reisman gave MacPherson a desperate pleading look.
“Best DP oan the planet. This is a dreamlike film. Ah need his color palate. Cannae do it withoot him.”
“The man’s in rehab again,” yelled the Executive.
“We’ve talked for years aboot shooting this oan digital. He’s up for it.”
“Digital? Your dick-ass would be shooting on digital.” The Executive addressed the girl. “Digital films do not have the lush quality of celluloid,” he declaimed.
“I don’t think Mac is serious,” said Reisman.
It was then that MacPherson, less than serious, contrived to knock over his wine, which pooled on the white rug like a spreading bloodstain.
“Shit,” screamed the Executive, watching the puddles of bright crimson spread.
“That Chatto LaFeet makes a hell of a big mess,” said MacPherson, looking around the office. He bent to examine a stain. “This wan looks like Italy.”
The men walked dejectedly to the lot where the Bentley was valet parked. The girls who passed wore identically cut suits of taupe and celadon. Each had one piece of carefully chosen jewelry, a bracelet, a thin gold necklace. It was a look. The complex sprawled on the Burbank side of the Hills and Rich thought how perfect it would be if the smog were to settle now, another dullness layered upon the dullness there. But it didn’t. It was one of those bright days when the smog recedes and palm trees with jagged fronds stand like paper cutouts under a sky of such cloudless blue that the candy-colored buildings all around them seemed lit and pretty as a child’s dream of chocolate cake.
“Russian Tea Room?” asked Reisman.
“Someone going to tell me what happened?” Rich asked.
Reisman chewed at a cuticle. “I thought it went excellent. If it went badly, he’d have said no in the room.”
“Positive thinking, eh? Learn that at yir damn yoga class? Desparate Dahn, eh? Gonnae go looking for yir Don Juan?”
“I’d have to say I didn’t hear a yes,” Rich noted.
“Already you’re discouraged? That suit is an irrelevance. I was working on the girl. There’s a regime change coming. You can smell the fear in there.”
The car was pulled up to them.
“Shotgun,” yelled MacPherson. “Ah bags shotgun.”
Reisman draped an arm around Rich’s shoulders. “Don’t forget what Mencken said: there are more morons collected in Los Angeles than any other place on earth.”
“I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise.”
The producer looked delighted. “You could have a career in the U.S., Richard. I mean that sincerely.”
Rob McClure Smith’s fiction has appeared in Chapman, Gutter, Barcelona Review, Versal, Warwick Review and other literary magazines. He was a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.
Along The Mississippi River
The American roadtrip: a life-defining journey, racing along the desert highways to the leafy green of the National Parks or to the sky-scraping cities. It’s delighted writers and artists for generations — we’ve all read the books, seen the films and heard the real-life adventures along Route 66, The Big Sur and the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s all been done before. Which is why, I think, it’s time to drive off the highway and seek adventures elsewhere. Forget On The Road; this journey is going to be along the river instead.
The Mississippi River flows for 2,348 miles from western Minnesota all the way through to the Gulf of Mexico. I was in Memphis last year and the Mississippi made quite an impression on me. That day, it seemed muddy and tranquil but despite attempts to control it, it still has the power to unleash devastating floods, as has happened this spring, and its hidden undercurrents could easily sweep one away. Unsurprisingly, many artists, musicians and writers have been lured by the power and beauty of the Mississippi and used it as their inspiration for their finest works.
Its history and stories, chronicled by authors and poets alike, are so fantastic as to have an almost mythical quality. Through the words of authors such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, you can capture a flavour of the old South and can experience the length and breadth of the river from the comfort of your armchair. It may not be as life-changing as a real-life American roadtrip, but this journey through literature, and along the Mississippi, is certainly vibrant and unforgettable.
A poet who understood the importance of the Mississippi River and its significance in American culture was Langston Hughes. In his poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, he establishes the link between human history and the river; in particular, the history of his own race and slavery. The river was, for many slaves, a symbol of both freedom and repression. Slaves were often bought and sold down the river, and yet the endless flow of the Mississippi gave them hope of an escape and a route to liberty. Hughes captures this sense of the never-ending, as well as emphasising the detachment of the river; although so intertwined with human lives, it remains cold and uncaring to their plight. The lines “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the/flow of human blood in human veins” suggests that even when all human endeavour is gone, the river runs on. You can read the poem and actually listen to Langston Hughes reading it here. I’ve always loved spoken poetry, and this recording sends shivers down my spine.
For Mark Twain’s protagonist, Huckleberry Finn, the Mississippi River represents freedom. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim, a black slave, travel the Mississippi on a raft, trying to escape the fetters that bind them. Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens and grew up by the Mississippi in Hannibal, Missouri, and spent his youth working on a steamboat. As a result, the river became the backdrop to many of his most famous stories and an enduring presence throughout his work. The description of the Mississippi in the moonlight, miles-long and silent, is haunting and atmospheric, whilst the use of colloquial first person makes the novel seem authentic. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the work of Mark Twain.
In this literary journey along the river, it’s inevitable to travel from the work of Mark Twain to that of William Faulkner. Faulkner was influenced not only by Twain, whom he named “the father of American literature”, but also by the beauty and the tragedy of his homeland close to the Mississippi River. Faulkner created a fictional setting — Yoknapatawpha County — based around his real-life hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner’s work is often violent and emotional, where human nature remains as unflinching as the river itself. Look out for The Sound and The Fury, Absalom, Absalom! but also his shorter and lesser-known fiction, such as The Bear and Old Man, the latter being the Mississippi River itself and set around the time of the great floods of 1927.
Modern authors have continued to feature the Mississippi in their writing. The novels of James Lee Burke, especially those involving the ex-cop Dave Robicheaux, are largely set in the bayou country of the Mississippi delta. On the surface, these novels might seem to be just another noir detective series but Burke is not afraid to address the issues facing the South in the last few decades, whether racial tension, extreme poverty or life post-Hurricane Katrina.
In contrast, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, is set in the 1920s and tells the story of the abduction of a young girl and one man’s attempts to find her. Much of the novel is set aboard an old pleasure steamer that travels up and down the Mississippi and, amongst all the jazz and gambling, the River itself seems to dominate the novel.
Finally, any trip down the Mississippi would be incomplete without a visit to the city of New Orleans. In recent years, New Orleans has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons and, after the flooding, is trying hard to get back on its feet again. Despite this, returning to authors such as Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams preserve the once vibrant city in a golden age.
From the turn of the twentieth century, New Orleans was often seen as colourful, full of reckless, determined characters and a hotbed of independent thinking and free-living, where musicians made their money playing the brass from dusk till dawn. It was glamorous and yet sinful. It’s no wonder that it became the setting for such dramatic, radical works as Chopin’s The Awakening, and, in the 1940s, Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire.
The raucous atmosphere of New Orleans seems a world away from the descriptions of the slumbering river in Huckleberry Finn and yet all these novels are interconnected and bound together by the vast Mississippi. Writers like Twain, Faulkner and Gautreaux have told their own stories along the river, each different in tone and style but, undeniably, the Mississippi has had an impact on all of them. Their voices coexist and work together to conjure up a wonderful image of life in the American South. This image, even though taken from fiction, is based on real-life experiences and seems as clear and vivid as if it had been seen with our own eyes.
Nick drives the green-and-gold Gennaro Financial Recovery Chevy to the levee but, it being August, the levee is dry. The moment the name and address came in, Nick said he’d take this one himself. Frances said, “Who’s Herbert Landon?” He knew she had to be kidding. Herbert Landon, Landon House, Landon City?
Heading along the levee now, one hand on the steering wheel, the other at the window, drumming the truck roof in time to the radio, Nick thinks he should do this more often. Get out of the office; remind himself what the job is all about. He pulls onto the highway without really looking and, in an elongated blare of horn and silent curses, a rust-red Toyota swerves past, its driver gesticulating, his face peeled open with rage. Nick lets it go. There is a flow, he thinks, like a river, that brings things into your life that are meant to be there, if you let it. He’s taken the truck because that’s what they do. He doesn’t expect to be actually repossessing anything. The guy must be a hundred years old: if he hasn’t paid the tax, he’s probably just forgotten. Used the red reminders to line the kitty tray. It’s not going to be because he can’t afford a couple hundred. The job might need politeness, a little diplomacy, but Nick can’t see heavy lifting.
The gates are open – at least the old guy hasn’t barricaded himself in – and he pulls into the driveway, scattering gravel as he swings up to the front door. Four stories high and wider than City Hall, the house old Joseph Landon built himself just after the war when Landon Water really took off, is still the largest private residence in Landon City. Ugly, though, Nick thinks: the windows are too small, with heavy stone lintels and sills that give the place the air of a barracks, or one of those police stations he’s seen in Italy where the carabinieri roll in and out with their tinted windows and machine guns. On the top floor, under the eaves, one of the panes is broken.
He picks the beige folder from where it has slipped into the passenger footwell and climbs out of the truck. It is hot outside; unusually humid. It isn’t supposed to rain this time of year, but it looks like it might. He mounts four or five stone steps to the door and pulls an old-fashioned bell cord.
The guard would be as broad as a wardrobe, and about as forthcoming. He would grunt and Herbert would guess one of the grunts was “lunch”. He wouldn’t want to eat, and might say so. At his age, he’d say, there doesn’t seem much point. You just don’t need the fuel.
Herbert Landon is 103 and believes he’ll be the oldest person ever incarcerated in the city that bears his name. His father’s name. It is possible he’s wrong about that, but he doubts it. Perhaps, after everything else, that’s what they’ll put on his gravestone?
The stone exists already – it has for half a century – and he can picture it distinctly. It is not, in fact, a gravestone, but the last blank marble panel on the family memorial the city erected when his father died. The panels occupy each side of an octagonal fountain base. Inscribed around the rim are the words of St John the Divine: I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. Herbert wondered what his father would have made of that “freely”. The water that slides gently over them all, pumped and filtered and recycled now for fifty years, fell as rain three hundred miles away: Herbert Landon himself put it over the hill.
That was what the engineers at Landon Water called it then. They pulled water down from the lakes and reservoirs in the eastern mountains to pool in the central plain. When the weather forecasts and the big scale users said they were going to need it, they put that water over the hill to Landon City. It took two days to pull water down, six more to put it over the hill, along the aqueducts that Joseph Landon built, and sometimes they got it wrong. Sometimes, against the odds, it rained like the end of the world in August, or in February, when by rights it shouldn’t rain at all. The farmers kept their irrigation off, and the factories refilled their run-off tanks; what the Company couldn’t store they had to let run into the ocean and that cost them money.
Filling the doorway, the guard says it doesn’t matter shit what he wants, he’s going to fucking move, OK?
Herbert swings his legs over the side of his bed, places a liver-spotted hand on each knee and pushes to help himself rise. He’s used a stick for years but he knows they won’t let him keep it in jail. For health and safety reasons, they’ll say. Meaning, to be charitable, that other, fitter, inmates might take it away and beat him with it, or worse. So he is practising, and has found he can do without the stick after all, which is something to be thankful for. He wriggles his shoulders and tugs at his groin to settle the over-large jump-suit they’ll have him wearing. Pistachio does no one any favours, which he supposes to be the point, but it will be especially unfortunate against skin as grey as his.
It is Friday. Lunch will be chilli con carne – more kidney bean than carne, Herbert predicts dispassionately; he isn’t going to eat it anyway. It will be popular with his fellow inmates. In his head a black man in a uniform like an all-over purple bruise with a white trim slops rice and chilli into the largest depression of a pre-formed aluminium tray and thrusts it at him. He carries it over to the least crowded section of the long refectory tables. He puts the tray down carefully and sits on the bench, facing the wall, away from the table. He can stand, he can walk without a stick – he is proud of that – but lifting one leg then the other over a bench is beyond him. If he can’t get a spot at the end – and usually they’re taken first, and by the least amenable inmates – he has to sit and swing his legs a hundred and eighty degrees, his hands tugging at the table without dignity or grace. As he swings around, his foot might brush his neighbour, and there will be an ugly moment while the neighbour decides whether to take offence. It is lucky that Landon City is now large enough (and lawless enough) to need two prisons: during his time as a Councilman, Herbert himself gave the go-ahead for a separate maximum security facility on what used to be flood plain before his father banked the river. He will not be going there.
Nick hears a distant jangle as a bell rings somewhere deep inside the house. There’ll be some kind of help: a nurse/housekeeper, a butler, even. When he worked for the city council – processing benefits, at first; then, when he found sitting at a desk all day drove him crazy, investigating fraud, collecting debts – there’d been people there who remembered when Herbert Landon was a Deputy Mayor. Apparently the parties – mayoral inauguration, founder’s day – were something to behold. There were even one or two who’d been around in the early 60’s when old Joseph Landon died and Herbert and his mother sold Landon Water to the city. Nick had been there himself in the 80’s when the city sold it on to Continental, an altogether bigger operation that supplied a score of towns and cities up and down the coast. A couple of years after that, Nick rode the same privatization wave, set up Gennaro Financial Recovery, took the city contract and half his employees with him. Since when, he thinks, he’s been sitting at a desk most days.
He pulls the bell cord again, hears the same muffled sound. He can feel the sun on the back of his neck, the sweat beginning to trickle inside his shirt. He turns away from the door, looks out over his truck. The lawn is brown in places, the borders a little ill-defined, but the place hasn’t run to seed. There must be a gardener: there’s no way Herbert Landon is looking after this himself. So why is he suddenly on Nick’s books?
He turns to try the bell a third time and hears bolts scraping back. When the door swings open there’s no housekeeper, no butler, just a guy who must have once been tall but has lost a deal of height to age and gravity. A guy with watery eyes and no hair that’s not transparent and an immaculate herringbone suit. Who looks as old as Methuselah and has just got to be Herbert Landon himself. Nick can hear the breath rattling his ribs but his hands are steadier than you might expect on the shotgun he’s pointing at Nick’s chest.
When Joseph Landon found the place, it was called Eden and, even though it styled itself a city, there were less than five hundred souls in all, strung out along a river that dried to a trickle every summer, but which, every decade or so, burst its banks in spring, ruining everybody’s ground floor furnishings and washing a farm and a family or two into the ocean. Insurance was hard to come by.
This isn’t the first time anyone has pointed a gun at Nick, but the last was long ago and not something he wants to recall Besides, whatever anyone says, it is not something you ever really get used to. Nick lifts his hands, palms out, dropping the folder, and backs away from the door. Fear makes him forget the steps he has climbed to get there: he stumbles and falls, sprawling in the gravel.
Herbert has not fired a gun for seventy years – since before the Second World War – but he keeps the barrels trained on the dough-faced man sprawled against the front wheel of a green-and-gold pick-up. The man is wearing a summer-weight navy suit and a plain tie. The trouser cuffs are pulled up, showing legs like suet puddings above pale yellow socks.
Herbert walks slowly down the steps, never taking his eyes off the debt collector, who sits up, brushing dust from his knees, reaching for the folder he has dropped. When he puts one hand down to lever himself to his feet, Herbert tells him to stay where he is. He circles to the front of the truck, checks there’s no one else inside, then swings his gun off the man and blows out the windscreen. Both barrels. Once, when he was young, his father took him to see a dam he’d just built in a bowl in the mountains. The noise of water cascading down the hydro shaft was unbelievable. Then his father stopped the fall, like turning off a tap, and Herbert had been impressed, then appalled, by the complete absence of sound as water began slowly to swallow the valley. The silence that follows the shotgun blasts and the soft thump of glass collapsing onto the truck seat has the same unnatural density, like something physicists might imagine happening deep in space.
To Nick it is like the silence you get in war films, when the good guys think they might be safe, and then all hell breaks out.
In time Continental was swallowed up by someone even bigger; its executives paid themselves a bonus for pushing through the deal, and more bonuses as the workforce shrank and profits grew.
The engineers who were left watched a digital map of the entire network while their computers pulled water down from further and further afield and pushed it over the hill to the entire western seaboard. But they still couldn’t stop it raining in August, or February, which last year it had more than the year before, which itself was more than any year since records began. The aircraft plant in Landon finally went bust, along with so much else, and the farmers stopped growing stuff they couldn’t sell when the Government stopped paying them do it and the whole thing looked like it was going belly up. So the water company called the city politicians, said they needed cash: it was a strictly temporary thing, they said, and they made a lot of jokes about liquidity, but basically it was a threat. The cities agreed extraordinary tax levies because what else could they do? There were a hundred and fifty thousand people now in Landon City alone; they couldn’t not have water. So the company survived, and its executives rewarded themselves for saving it – and, of course, for saving all those people who lived on the coast and were always their first concern.
A year later things are still touch and go, and the company is coming back for more.
Herbert breaks open the shotgun, tosses aside the spent cartridges. When the debt collector finally stands up, Herbert hands him the gun.
Nick, not knowing what else to do, takes it. He can see it is a beautiful piece: rosewood stock, silver chasework. Herbert says it is a Beretta, a name Nick associates with gangsters and spies.
“It was my father’s. Beretta make first rate shotguns. Up there with your Purdeys and Brownings; for smaller birds – woodcock, quail – maybe the best. That one’s worth about twelve grand.”
Nick looks again at the gun in his hand, touches the breech gently. The metal is still hot.
Herbert says, “Would you care for a drink?”
When Nick gets back to the office, Frances looks at the gun he places on the desk and asks why he’s soaking wet. He tells her how, on his way back, the summer clouds opened and the rain came through the hole where his windscreen used to be like a waterfall, and he’d had to pull off the road and wait and let it happen.
Frances shakes her head, makes that sound she makes, like a little sigh, that lets him know he’s being stupid. “What happened to the windscreen, Nick?”
He nods at the shotgun. “Junior destroyed it.”
“Christ, Nick. Were you in it?”
He tells her how it happened, though he omits to mention his falling backwards down the steps.
He tells her the old guy led him to a library, like you see in films about the British aristocracy, and poured him a whisky. He tells Nick he can keep the gun – on condition. The condition is Nick doesn’t come back, and his operatives don’t come back, and his competition doesn’t come back. Nick is to tell the city the place is barricaded and he’s not coming out.
Frances says, “Why?”
“Because he’s not paying and he doesn’t want some repo man shouldering his stereo and selling it off to settle the levy. Thinking that makes them straight.”
“He said “stereo”?”
“He’s a hundred and three. He said it “steer-e-oh”. He says they’re not getting the money. He’ll go to jail first.”
Frances shakes her head. “He keeps shooting up people’s trucks he will go to jail.”
“He said not to tell anyone about that.”
“He said I should remember the gun was one of a pair.”
Frances laughs. “He’s a game old bird, you’ve got to give him that.”
Nick opens a cupboard, pokes around until he finds a couple of Gennaro Financial Recovery tee-shirts. He strips off his own sodden jacket and shirt and pulls on a tee, then sits at his desk and uses the other to wipe down the gun, drying off the rain and polishing the silver inlay and the flower patterns etched into the steel. He locks it shut and raises the barrels, closing one eye and aiming at the clock above the door. He pulls a trigger and makes a soft explosion with his throat and lips.
Frances has turned back to her email. She looks up and says, “You’re not going to keep it?”
Nick has been thinking about that. He could hand the gun in to the city. Job done. The old guy was a hundred and three. Twelve grand would pay his water taxes long enough that it made no difference. He takes aim at the computer screen on his desk, pulls the second trigger and breathes another quiet explosion.
In the kitchen at Landon House, Herbert lies face-down on the floor, waiting for the police. He is attempting a press-up. He can’t quite make it, but he will keep trying. He can do sit-ups now, and touch his toes. Prison isn’t going to break him. The guy in the top bunk would have to look out for him.
For the first time in years Herbert has worked up a sweat. He climbs slowly to the fourth floor, hauling on the carved oak banisters. He has not been up here since the late seventies, but he has decided that he wants a bath – God knows he won’t get one in jail – and there are only showers in the second and third floor bathrooms. He pictures the bath, white and vast like a cruise liner in dry dock, gleaming under the sloping eaves at the top of the house.
When he reaches the bathroom it is thick with dust.A window pane is broken and birds have got in. There are droppings and, in a corner, the carcass of a pigeon. The bath is crusted with dirt and calcium. The taps are stiff and hard to shift, but he is strong now and he manages to work them both. Somewhere far off in the house the pipes begin to knock and he waits for water to come gushing through the filth and sediment of all the years, and run freely.
The wind from the Pacific was stronger and cooler than the time of year suggested it might have been. Salt sea wind and hot sun burned pale skins, and caught unhatted heads so that the unwary were struck down. In the evening they collapsed. The next day was spent motionless in the cool of their room. That was how it was for unsuspecting visitors to the ocean.
They had expected warm, white sand and high waves. They had seen themselves in the southern heat, in cotton clothes and shaded glass. They were sitting beneath enormous parasols where iced drinks were served at welcome intervals. The surfers were young and skilled. From the boardwalk came the rhythms of desire and expectation. That was, of course, how it had been in everything they had seen and heard of the coast. Anything less was wrong, like being told a movie star was not as tall as he acted.
There was a picture, a long time in the making, of which they were the stars. It was called “California”. Now it was being ruined by the studio executives out of spite for the undoubted talent they had shown in telling the truth. The truth as it ought to be.
When the wind came in cooler, names were being removed from the credits. This was another picture, a second feature that nobody would want to see. They could hear the popcorn and the derisive snickers of the kids waiting for the main attraction to appear at last.
The following day, early, they were going upstate through the wine country towards the mountains and forests that were natural wonders, not the celluloid that a studio could destroy. Nobody yawned at the sight of bears coming a little too close to the tour bus. Larry, the driver, said calmly, ‘Now, don’t you get scared. These fellas are more scared of the roar of this engine when I start up. Nobody gets hurt.’ And that was true because the bears are scattered by the man-beast’s power. Bears could look in wonder at the iron birds that did no harm. But these land creatures killed anything in their path.
And in the evening they tasted more of the wine. Tonight it was a merlot as fine as the European wines, they felt sure. They talked to a couple of German college girls with excellent English. The Germans spoke clearly, addressing most of their answers to her rather than him, and asking no questions of him. But the young women were amiable behind the perfectly understandable caution. If you were foreign and young and pretty (and female) it was wise to be cautious on vacation. ‘You’re cautious enough yourself now’, later he said to her incautiously.
The howl of what was that? – a coyote? – in the distance served to remind everybody that this was wilderness. This was not a city park. Of course there were rangers. And there were rules: ‘Do not wander. Do not think you are Daniel Boone. The cabins are safe. The only creatures you may see there are lizards, and they will do you no harm, alarming as they may seem when they leap.’
Then there was a city again. It took hours of highways, not all in good repair, before the first glimpse of tall towers of steel and glass flashing in the sunlight. That was the city, but not as they had wanted it to be. You think of wooden-boarded pavilions in rows climbing the steep hills where cable cars act like scary rides at a funfair. That is what they wanted to see. And the sight of the famous bridge, old enough to be much-copied, but looking original even now.
There were many pavilioned streets above the aspiring tedium of the financial district. They were searching for poetry. The city was a poem that you were writing as you walked to the sight of celebrated landmarks. There was the bridge, the tower, the wharf, the church, the prison island long since abandoned.
The sight of the prison island, especially in its abandonment, made you shiver. You could imagine yourself, falsely accused, over there in years of solitary. Now your ghost with vengeful cries haunts the visitors who idly pass by.
Someone screamed when a street performer bursts jack-in-the-box style from a trash can. A prisoner had escaped, a madman was on the loose, rampaging through the city. Then there was laughter when the audience got the joke. A couple with a Midwestern look shrugged indifferently. Well, this is San Francisco. What do you expect?
You expect poetry. It was poetry that attracted them: the ease of living in a community that had nowhere further to go except upward into Parnassus. This was the world’s edge. The ocean is a reminder of the impermanence of things. The constantly changing waters may take this grain of sand to China. Or else it sinks into the undiscovered depths of the Pacific where mountains that dwarf the Andes are submerged. We do not know our world, you say. The city made their thoughts profound and their feelings poignant.
There was a haze in the distance, an uncertainty that would pass over as rain. They hoped to reach Chinatown before the deluge. The darkening heavens forebode bad tidings of the world in flood. In the commercial blocks there was shelter but no hope. Who wants to be marooned in a business colony? There were places to pass through on the way to the living and interesting. It was, they reflected, disturbing the way the financial districts of the world had come to resemble one another. This could be anywhere. It was, they concluded, nowhere.
There was another anonymity in Chinatown where so much life was hurrying noisily on seemingly urgent business of a kind they could not translate into the calm that was their preference. But here was the taste of the far side of the ocean that they had admired so much. These were the people who had flown across the world in search of something they could not find at home. Whatever it was it was not peace. That, like poverty, they would have in the village of a mountain province. Here was a chance that fortune had offered. The gate they had entered was of tarnished gold. They scurried, chattering among themselves, for purposes no stranger could discern. The visitors moved invisibly, spectrally through their lives. An ancient civilization has seen nations and empires come and go. What makes a visitor worth a second look?
The Church of St Francis cast a shadow at the crossroads. The shrine was calmer than the weather that threatened the day. They found shelter, among books, as the rain swept across. Not even the house of God was spared the deluge. The significance seemed almost profound for a moment, only to fade before he or she could speak.
Then there was the poetry itself. This is what they had hoped to find. No, this is what they knew they would find as the heavens fell in fury, and the city lights made sense of premature night.
Across the road they saw two young women with oilskins. Their backpacks looked like the pilgrim’s burden. She noticed them, and tugged at his sleeve. ‘Look, it’s those two we met in the nature reserve.’ But, looking again, she saw she had been mistaken. The truth was she was hoping to see someone familiar, for they knew nobody here. Such coincidences did occur, of course, usually in fiction. It was one of the weaknesses of Dickens. It was a reason, they both agreed, for not reading him, although there were good reasons for forgiving him. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ he said. ‘Isn’t that the one set in America? Or is that Chuzzlewit?’
But this was not a fiction where everything is a network of chances written in complete sentences that furnished a series of paragraphs with a conclusion that made sense of everything that had gone before. They were speaking in phrases and overlapping dialogue. She was not listening as attentively as he hoped. He was not speaking as clearly as she wished.
The rain stilled the traffic. Empty streets so early were an unexpected sight. People were changing their plans. There had been an electrical storm once when they took a bus out in the country. Someone’s dog was desperately barking and squirming frantically. Then there was the time in a hotel when it snowed and flashed with lightning, and they felt secure, watching the world end. This, however, was no more than Californian rain that would soon pass.
In unfamiliar places you think, ‘They have weather just like ours.’ They have many things. The crazy old bearded man at the window, for example. Was he looking for someone? Very likely not. He was looking. He had been looking for so many years he had forgotten what it was he had sought. Anticipation had given way over the years to a bemused expression that asked a question to which there was no answer.
He was searching for a metaphor he could not find. One day, wandering the streets of the city he would stumble upon a few words that would explain everything he needed to know. Perhaps it would be a line of a busker’s song, or a graffito elegantly inscribed by an unknown. Perhaps it was going to be something overheard in some strangers’ conversation. Those two in there, browsing – do they have something to tell me?
They walked back to the hotel when the rain eased a little. They hoped the clouds would part so that the moon would be in view. Tonight was a full moon. He told her of a moon he had seen at midsummer. No longer a pale, luminous eye upon the world, this moon was larger and darker. This was not how it should be. It had felt like a portent, although he could think of nothing unusual happening afterward.
They liked to see a new moon, also. That sliver of lemon in the sky seemed so promising. If it portended anything it was surely something good. ‘There is a moon at home,’ she said. ‘It’s the same moon. But it doesn’t feel the same.’ She did not ask him if he understood. The assumption, naturally, was that he would understand. And if he did not then that was no fault of hers. It was no fault of the moon.
Nobody supposes they will end up crazy and old, peering through windows. The young always will be the stars of their movies. It is later that we see ourselves as passers-by. The old man looking in is the young man reading the book. But that is not a thought we like to think.
They were so far from home. It had taken a long time to come this far. So long a time had passed, it seemed, since they had arrived. Each of them felt a change inside, a quiet, barely perceptible transformation that usually takes some time to work its way through one’s being. Neither of them spoke of this, but it was there.
They had seen more of the world than they had imagined. They imagined further journeys to distant places. As children these places were known while remaining out of reach. They planned that one day they would reach those places, including the Pacific shore. Every journey made a difference. Every homecoming was to somewhere less familiar. Home was half-forgotten. Had the invitation to remain been given, had it been possible to accept, the temptation would have been powerful. Perhaps it was the moon affecting human lives as it affected the motions of the sea. Without the moon people would feel differently, they were sure. Perhaps they would not feel at all.
These were late night thoughts. In the morning there would be ordinary and necessary things to do that would shape their day. Sometimes there was a visible moon in daylight. It was something a bright child observes before telling other children, who are intrigued by this world-shaking discovery.
But in the morning there was no moon. It was a clear, unclouded day. A plane flew over, rising as it turned in a wide arc. There were crazy old men who once thought they could fly. And there were beautiful young women who were dreaming in the sky. That was how life was, and how it would be for ever. Most of the world’s poetry remains unfinished. But occasionally there rises the metaphor that stills all other considerations for a moment. We search for those moments, only to stumble on one unexpectedly, if at all.
In the ocean were turtles and sharks and whales. Their world was the same earth as ours, yet a world seen only in glances. It was out there beyond the rhythms of the surf. The bridge was closed to walkers because people had been known to jump. In the ocean they sought oblivion. What they would find was beyond conjecture. Like the surf, our thoughts cascander in contemplating these things.
The day was fine. The streets were dried by the sun after the rain. That was yesterday. They could not remember everything about yesterday because today was already passing. ‘You folks just sit and relax, and we’ll bring your order,’ said the man in the café. He was Italian-American, an Easterner by his accent. He had come out West for who knows what reason? He seemed to have found it. And that was more than many could say.
Here at the edge of the world it was possible to realize something of one’s hopes because the ocean ebbed and flowed, and the land was moving beneath one’s feet. Everything, they could see now, was given to change. They were not the same as they had been before they came. That was how it was. That was the script they had to learn by heart.
American Youth Culture In American Writing – Books vs Screen
Our books and screens are filled with tales of growing up, missing buses, getting dumped, being cheated, winning at sports and realising dreams. In fact there’s so much that sometimes I forget how I grew up, then I remember evil dinner ladies and wet play – you weren’t there man. You weren’t there.
Portrayals of youth on screen are everywhere; the young sexy cast of Friends still graces British screens on a constant loop, Scrubs (although not all young) began life portraying the lives and times of junior doctors with references to college and med school. Also, let us not forget Hollywood after Hollywood blockbuster of high school proms, art students, vampires and the kid that always misses the bus that are written regularly to a formula, showing a tough American upbringing. On top of this, TV shows such as My Super Sweet Sixteen, Jersey Shore and 90210 show wealthy teenagers, big dresses, tears and fast cars as their representation of a young America. Seeing these from a more ‘average’ background makes these shows interesting – ‘let’s put the TV on and see a rich girl get hurt’.
Within literature we see writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, Chad Kultgen and Chelsea Handler (with her memoirs) portray a youth of wrong-doings, one-night stands, broken hearts and feeling awkward in social situations. The TV shows are entertaining in their own way; personally I love nothing more than seeing a stroppy fifteen year old not get the $1200 shoes she was after, but then again I also have a soft spot for Handler’s superb delivery of her late night encounters.
Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less Than Zeroin 1985. As monetary backgrounds go, Clay, the main character, his close group of friends and pretty much every character of ‘that’ 90210 postcode are very similar. Well-off, houses with pools, the latest gadgets, such as iPod touch’s for the current 90210 clan and the constant playing of MTV and cassettes for Clay and his group.
This is where the similarities end though. Less Than Zero portrays a much darker side to the wealthy American youth with drug abuse, un-aspiring actors, casual sex and a few more horrific scenarios involving dead bodies, pimps and very young girls. I would imagine that the very latter of the list would be a metaphor for the youth that gets exactly what they want, going one step too far. There is a certain curiousness about the addition of such extreme situations, as well as the inclusion, in graphic detail, of drug abuse from not only Clay and his friends – but his younger siblings too. These sorts of storylines, or more so these approaches, are nowhere to be seen on our screens. Less Than Zero itself was subject to being made more moralistic, and swaying vastly away from the original in the 1987 film adaptation, with drug abuse, sex and pimping being removed, leaving an obvious scratch in the paintwork of Ellis’ book.
90210 offers a completely different character set up; all the kids are eager to study, are embarrassed by their parents like any sweet teenager would be, have the latest dreams and goals that seem to update with fashion, and already have the perfect after-college job lined up. This is almost the perfect life, even the nerdy kids are cool – they just have comic book fetishes that intrigue the hot girl and score them big boy status before the series ends.
Friends and Scrubs work similar to 90210 in the sense they offer the almost perfect life, and a low price with seemingly easy achievable goals and promotion throughout respective companies, such as JD’s promotion to leading the residents through training and Rachel’s climb through Ralph Lauren. Neither of which would be possible in Ellis’ world – whether this be decided by society, the lack of talent and ambition of the characters, or maybe the highlight that most of them seem to have had everything put on a plate for them.
Chad Kultgen, in his novel The Lie, outlines the overall message that in college it’s dog-eat-dog, you get what you work for and sometimes working for it could mean stabbing people in the back. Both Scrubs and Friends have similar views on sex, masking sexual moments with innuendos, whereas Chelsea Handler offers a much more frank and open view about what happens when the door closes and the covers roll back – sometimes not even getting this far. It should be noted that Handler is writing for a different audience and Friends for a watershed, but would we want to watch Rachel talk in-depth about certain elements of love-making, even though we know her and Ross must have done something at least once?
A truly realistic view of growing up in America probably lies somewhere in the middle; there’s most likely an Xbox, a half-beaten car and the American dream somewhere in the future. Literary work does seem to offer more flexibility to say what the screen misses out, taking a reader on a longer, individual journey through the eyes of a sweaty, hormonal teenager and out the other side into adulthood – via a few mishaps of course.
Extract from “New York”, from the collection, So, Here I Am.
“New York” is Sabrina Mahfouz’s first ever piece of short fiction and is from a collection called So, Here I Am.
Yeh so they shot him. You heard he’s dead. Yeh he’s dead. You’re telling them, you know. You heard, bastard’s dead. God bless America. Some mothafucking crazy shit right here he gone died and now who be the enemy? You hear him, brother. You heard it, he dead. And you kinda feel like you helped that happen, don’t you? Well, at least a little. You might not have been on the Iraqi frontline but you’ve been on a line of your own, that is for sure, no mistake. Cos you don’t know exactly how many of them A-rabs you had to sit next to on planes taking them back to those godforsaken places where they were unlucky enough to be born. But it’s a hell of a lotta them. Yes, siree, a hell of a lot. Like last week, you took one of them back to Pakistan. You’re not dumb, you know that don’t make him A-rab but whatever, they sure as hell don’t know where you’re from, do they? They can’t tell the difference between a Wisconsin accent or a goddam Toronto accent so why should you give two hoots about the specifics of their origin? You only care cos wherever they from is where you’re gonna be staying the night. And when you’re staying the night in Pakistan, you never know what might happen with them crazy bastards, so you were already feeling on edge when you got on the plane. That ain’t too strange with this job, lots of times you feel on edge. You don’t know what’s gonna blow up in your face. You don’t mean for that to sound insensitive, or ironic. It’s just how it is. These people are angsty, they got some real behavioural problems some of them. Not that you get that much trouble, considering. You’ve got muscles. And you show them. You don’t feel the cold, snow is like some sort of spitty shitty shower to you. Feel the heat though. Yes siree, you feel the heat. And that’s another reason why you were none too ecstatic to be landing in Pakistan in May. It’s damn hot.
This one particular guy last week, Ali or Ahmed or whatever, he was actually kinda cool. He seemed to know a hell of a lot about Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino is the man, you know, was the man, whatever. He made some damn perfect movies so you two had a good chat about them 35,000 feet above nowhere. He had an almost Queens accent, so it seemed. Must have been there a while now, or else he was fooling. Either way, it’s not your place to ask. You don’t choose who stays or who goes. You just make sure they get off the plane and don’t get back on. You’d glimpsed his notes though. Seemed he was partial to brainwashing kids straight out of prison, hooking them up with people bigger and badder than himself. He gets out a photo of his wife. Hot thing, she was, you thought he was lucky to have a hot thing like that and she didn’t have a scarf on or nothing, her hair was all out flowing down her back, laughing on some park bench and you made a mistake, didn’t you? Started to ask questions, didn’t you? You knew you shouldn’t but you couldn’t help it, could you? The smile of the woman, her dark chestnut hair that reminded you of childhood somehow and those white teeth and the wide smile that seemed to be the brightest, best thing in the world and you wished so hard that you had someone who smiled at you like that and the little pangs started low down in your abdomen and then rose slowly, slowly. When they reached around where your heart must be, you almost spat it out your wife from Pakistan too?
She wasn’t. She was from Atlanta, actually. Atlanta, America? Yes. Italian heritage, a long way back. That explained the hair. You looked closer. She could’ve been Asian, but then she could’ve been Italian. He said he’d miss her lasagne but he’d find a new wife tomorrow. Did he smile? Your brows got furrowed and you grunted. Must have been louder than you thought cos then the other guard, Todd, who had three deportees throwing gum over his head turned and asked if you were all right. Yes, you said. Yes.
You clicked your neck from side to side to side until Ali or Ahmed asked if you were all right and you said yes, yes, yes. Then you felt the pangs that had started in your abdomen all that time ago turn into fiery shooting pains and you knew it was coming. It had happened many times before but never on a job, never on this job, just at home. Only ever at home. But the fire shot through your ribs and up into your armpits and wasted no time in sprinting along your arms and down to each finger and before you knew exactly what it was you would do you found that you had twisted the guy’s ear so hard and so far that it looked like a beige little rose bud and he was screaming but you couldn’t really hear him could you? You couldn’t hear him cos your other hand was marvelling at how the moist of his eye socket was cooling down your fingers and if you bent your fingers a little you could feel something like strings and you tried to play them like a little banjo and you thought you felt one of them disappear but then when you woke up he still had his eyeball intact, patched up though it was. Todd had knocked you on the back of the head with his SIG, the big dope, and attended to your guy with medical precision and indifference. There was blood seeping from the back of the guy’s ear. You supposed you pulled it pretty hard. You felt bad, cos you knew if the guy was any real threat they wouldn’t have put him on a plane with you and Todd. You got the friendly foe. That always pissed you off, boss knew you were ready for more serious assignments. Fuck him, fat bastard. Your section of the plane was pretty empty and Todd said he saw the guy try to attack you, but he thought it best to leave it now, not say anything to the authorities when we landed. He said the guy could be blind in that eye so he’d got enough to worry about. You nodded and went to shake hands with the guy, feeling bad how you were and everything, but Todd had put you in handcuffs. Just in case, he said and went back to his seat. You sat back down and looked at the guy. With his one open eye, the guy cried.
British Books to Hollywood Screens
Film adaptations are becoming a very common trend, but where are all these stories coming from? Here are five books written by British writers that have made it big on the silver screen.
1. This list wouldn’t be a list without the obvious mention of Harry Potter; that cheeky little wizard spanned a school life of seven books taking on sports, fellow wizards and lords of the underworld. Somewhere in there he grew from a man to a boy, got a girlfriend and had a pretty good time. Rowling’s work made well into the hundred millions, been turned into a theme park and made her the most recognisable British author in a very long time.
2. Alan Moore, British comic book writer and graphic novelist, was the brains behind epic superhero flick Watchmen, as well as V for Vendetta and From Hell. Moore’s unique work has created roles for Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Natalie Portman and Stephan Fry. The Watchmen is probably the most famous and successful of the three adaptations of Moore’s work, taking over fifty-million dollars in the first weekend of the films release – twenty million more than From Hell had done in its entire run at box office.
3. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, although made here in Britain, definitely made an impact over in the States. The film, nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, highlighted a world that many people would never see and launched Ewan McGregor into an acting career that has included roles in Moulin Rouge! and the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The film gained excellent reviews in Entertainment Weekly and Los Angeles Times – for these critics it signalled the arrival of Danny Boyle.
4. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, written over a space of twelve years by J.R.R. Tolkien, have become the second highest selling novels of all time – beaten only by Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Tolkien’s work creates an epic fantasy world mixed with action and adventure that is portrayed in Peter Jackson’s on-screen version with stunning visual effect. A third of the books sales have come since the arrival of the trilogy of films. The film grossed $2.91billion; The Return of the King picked up eleven academy awards, matching the all-time record of Titanic.
5. Finally, this film is yet to be released. However Twentieth Century Fox have announced that they have bought the rights to, and will be adapting, Mr Men and Little Miss books (the work of Roger Hargreaves) into a feature length film. The project has yet to be attached to a director or writer but Shaun Levy, producer of Night at the Museum and Date Night, has been given the task of turning the film into a success. The books themselves have sold over one-hundred million copies world wide so a high grossing film should be expected.
What does America mean to you?
The winner of our What America means to you? competition is @georgiamagpie:
America is my mythical journey to make, an endless desert highway, the magnitude of landscape, of possibilities and of dreams.
Here are the rest of the answers:
Litro #108: America
It was 20 years ago that British photographer Russell Young first lent his eye to celebrity culture. The assignment was photographing George Michael for the sleeve of an album called Faith. That job launched a career and soon Russell was shooting musicians like Morrissey, Bjork, Springsteen, Dylan, REM, New Order, The Smiths, Diana Ross, and many other celebrities. The next natural step was directing music videos; Russell directed a hundred music videos during the heyday of MTV.
Russell Young’s art works are currently on show at London Gallery, Whisper Gallery, 27/28 EastCastle Street, W1W 8DH, by appointment only.
Kele Okereke – His First Dead Body
He wasn’t sure if it was rude or not, leaving the club mid-conversation, but that stupid fucking song about being a firework had just started to play again and he knew that this was a sign that he should not be here. That song had been following him around New York for the whole week, blasting from car stereos to the bodegas up and down the West Village where he was staying. It didn’t make any sense, what did it mean to be a firework? Why did she sound so carefree singing that lyric about being on fire? It just made him angry. [private]So he told Derek, or Daniel, or David the eager young consultant who was talking to him (not the other way around) that he was going for a cigarette. He carefully descended the stairs of the club, making sure not to touch any of the sweaty shirtless bodies of the wide-eyed men. The surly blonde twink did not look him in the eye as he handed him back his leather jacket at the coat-check. Thank you, he muttered to himself. A perfect end to a perfect evening.
Out on the sidewalk he bristled as he felt the first blast of cold air. It was supposed to be warmer here; he had only brought one thin leather jacket to last him for the four weeks and he was already starting to get a cold. Yesterday it had rained all day, from the moment he woke up to the time he stumbled back to his apartment in the early hours of the morning. He might as well still be in London. If he was in London now, he would probably be doing the exact same thing, walking home on his own from the Joiner’s Arms, his local gay bar, semi-drunk and in a bad mood. If he was feeling particularly desperate he would probably call his ex Ruben, who would most probably ignore his call. He stopped himself mid-thought; there was no point thinking like this. He was here now, and he had to make it work.
For months he had thought of nothing but yellow taxis, brownstones and Times Square. New York was going to be his awakening; he would forget about Ruben and he would forget that he hated his job and everything and for four weeks he would feel life again. But so far it hadn’t really panned out like that. The only person he’d spoken to yesterday that he thought was nice was the girl in pizza shop at the end of his road. She called him honey as she gave him a lukewarm slice from the display counter. He’d liked how it had rolled off her tongue. During the week he had met people in bars, started conversations with strangers, but it always ended in the same way. He had to stop telling people where he was from because they always said the same thing, that they loved London and they wanted to come and live there. At first he tried to tell them that they were wrong and that life in London could be grey and fast and sometimes it could be so lonely that it would make you want to stab out your own eyes out with a fork but they didn’t seem to understand him, so he just nodded his head and waited for them to stop.
He was starting to think that maybe he had made a massive mistake in spending his savings on coming to NY. There had been no epiphany, no burning bush, just more of the same; busy people with fast lives and he still felt the way that he always did. Maybe his best friend Chris had been right: his demons would follow him no matter where he went.
He had to get out of the habit of taking taxis everywhere but it was too cold to walk the sixteen blocks home, his ears were starting to go numb. So he promised himself as he walked to corner of Eleventh Avenue that this would be the last yellow taxi for a while. Luckily there were four taxis all parked in a row. All the drivers were staring into the road with their windows and doors open. In front of them two heavily wrapped up figures were standing in the middle of the road. They were crouching over a bundle of rags, all grey and blue. He could sense that something was wrong with this picture. His pace quickened. As he got closer he could make out that the two figures in the middle of road were girls. One of them was now crouching down in the road over the bundle, but it wasn’t a bundle of rags, it was a body.
The panic starts to move in him, like wildfire at the edge of a forest. Without thinking, his legs accelerate towards them. Everything is in slow motion and for the first time he realises how drunk he is.
What happened? What happened?
We don’t know. We came out of a party and he was just stumbling in the road. We thought maybe he was drunk and then he just collapsed in the road.
He can hear in her accent that she is French, although he thinks she looks more Scandinavian with her blonde hair and Elvis Costello glasses. He can tell that she’s worried but she plays it cool. Her voice is calm and detached and he wishes that he had some of her insouciance right now. He is frantic as his words trip over themselves.
The other girl is kneeling on the pavement; she has a kinder face, light brown eyes and olive skin. She is gently slapping the boy’s face.
Hey man, stay with us, stay with us.
He can hear in her voice that she is not coping as well as her friend. There is a quaver that betrays her and he can tell she’s close to tears.
The boy on the floor is young, in his early twenties, light-skinned and handsome. His jeans are low and his cotton drawers are hanging out. In another life he could be a basketball player or a young rapper.
It’s the stillness of the boy’s body that he finds most terrifying. He lies crumpled like a marionette with the strings cut. His brown eyes are wide open and staring at the sky. He is lying lifeless, like a waxwork, with lips that are already starting to go blue.
Come on man, please stay with us.
There are no marks on his face so it can’t have been a fight and he doesn’t smell like alcohol so it must be drugs. He sighs: another party-boy casualty. He wonders if this boy could have been at the same club he was at moments before? Could he have walked right past him in the dark or waited outside a bathroom stall as he locked himself in and got high?
Why are none of these rubbernecking taxi drivers helping? He is starting to get angry. They probably see this all the time and have learned not to care. He wonders if he and the French girls had been American, not European tourists would they be avoiding this dying black boy on the streets too?
Even though the boy’s eyes are blank his chest is moving slowly, like a crawl. He is in there somewhere. There must be something he can do more than just wishing, there must be something practical?
He thinks back to the first aid training he received when he was in the Boy Scouts almost twenty years ago, but it’s all fuzzy. The only thing that he can recall is about head trauma, if a motorcyclist has been in an accident you shouldn’t move them or remove their helmet as it might make it worse. But this boy hasn’t been in an accident and there isn’t a helmet to be removed. Why didn’t he pay more attention as a child?
Have you called an ambulance?
Yes, just now before you got here, they said they’re on their way.
Oh OK. Maybe we should call his friends, find out what happened to him. Does he have a phone?
I don’t know, check.
He goes into the pockets of the boy’s jeans and pulls out an iPhone with a cranberry coloured rubber sleeve. Maybe his friends will know what he has taken so they can tell the medics when they get here. It might make all the difference, it might.
But he must be the only person in the world that doesn’t own an iPhone, he was always put off by their touch screens. With frozen fingers he manages to unlock the screen but he doesn’t know how to access the last number dialled. He feels like smashing the phone against the ground. Why won’t it co-operate? But it’s all right, he starts to hear the stuttering sirens in the distance, as he looks south down the block he sees the flashing red and white and disco lights lighting up Eleventh Avenue. He raises the iPhone in his hand and flags the ambulance down.
The kind French girl has started to cry.
Amadine, he’s not breathing, he’s not.
Come on buddy, stay with us, they are here now, he says but something has changed about the boy, his lips are completely blue and his chest has stopped moving. He has never seen a dead body before, never looked death in the eye. It chills him as he looks at the still boy: all he can think about his is his family somewhere. He thinks about his own mother crying in the airport as she saw him off. She told him to be careful and to come back in one piece. He had laughed at her as she cried. She was always thinking the worst.
The ambulance crew take over. They are well drilled and they move as one. A short butch female Italian-American paramedic comes up to him and he hands her the phone. She must have seen this a thousand times, there is no drama in her voice, just another day at the office. She asks him if the boy was his friend.
No, I don’t know him.
Well, we have it from here now, it’s time for you all to go.
There is something firm in her voice and he doesn’t realise until halfway down the block that she did not give him a choice. The French girls have already disappeared and he cannot feel his hands or his ears any more. Halfway down the block he turns back to look at the paramedics and sees that they have put a tarp over the boy’s body. Their work here is done.
It isn’t until he gets into the taxi that he realises he is shaking. All he can think about is the boy’s eyes, dead like marbles. He needs some sort of reassurance so he turns to the taxi driver as they speed down Eighth Avenue.
Can I ask you a question?
Have you ever seen a dead body before?
Yes I have … my grandmother.
I just saw someone die on the street. Does it happen often here?
The taxi driver snorted.
People die everywhere buddy, it’s got nothing to do with New York.
I know but I’ve never seen anything like that before.
There was a pause.
Well, it’s life buddy, you gotta toughen up.
The taxi driver turned on the radio and he got he message that the conversation had ended. He sank back into his seat.
He didn’t know what to do when he got back into his apartment, it seemed so small now. He felt so naive, the words of the taxi driver reverberating in his head. The skin of the world had been pulled back; he could see the blood, the flesh and bones and he did not like it. He called his mother back in London: it would be about 7am on a Sunday morning so he knew that she probably wouldn’t answer but he left a message on her answering machine. He told her not to worry, that he loved her and he missed her, and that everything was OK here. Everything was OK.[/private]
Kele Okereke lives in London and New York. He is the singer/guitarist of British indie band Bloc Party. He has had stories printed in Punk Fiction, Five Dials, and Attitude magazine. He is currently writing a collection of short stories called Midnight on a Bicycle. He has a blog atiamkele.com/blog.
Paul Beckman – Whatchamacallit
Mirsky was working in his home office writing ad copy for a housing brochure and for the life of him couldn’t think of the word for the bump that went from the road surface to the sidewalk. Driveway. Divider. Edging. These words came flying back and forth into his head and he knew they were wrong, and he also knew that he had thought of the right word when he began to write the copy but the harder he tried to think of it now, the farther from his grasp it slipped.
[private]He felt the spasm of an anxiety attack. Mirsky was only fifty-five years old and this was another in a series of words that he’d been forgetting lately. About six months ago he noticed his wife Elaine was finishing his sentences for him. Mirsky had always been a fast thinker and a fairly rapid talker so while he’d observed this behaviour in other couples, it was a new experience for him. He laughed about it with Elaine when it started, and even later on when friends or co-workers began doing it to him too. No one thinks much of tossing a word into another’s sentence; it’s a common phenomenon, and has been forever, probably.
But at his age, when friends and relatives are talking about their parents’ dementia or Alzheimer’s, Mirsky has started to worry. Until this moment with the sidewalk word, he hadn’t shared his thoughts with anyone. Putting his pen down, he reflected on what was happening, and why people were finishing his sentences. Mirsky thought that perhaps his voice trailed off, or he spoke slower as he came to the end of a sentence. Then he realized that he’d really and truly been having difficulty thinking of last words.
As Elaine walked by his office door and smiled at him, Mirsky waved her in. She had a great smile and used it often. “What do you call this part of the subdivision road?” he asked, pointing to the line on the plot plan. “The curb?” she asked without hesitation, as if he’d sprung a surprise quiz on her. “Why? Are you looking for another word for curb? Have you tried the thesaurus?”
She must have noticed the sad look on his face as he grabbed the pen and quickly wrote curb before forgetting it again. Elaine, his wife of almost thirty years, and proud that she was still able to fit into her prom gown, walked over and kissed the top of his head.
“I’m worried,” Mirsky said softly. “This isn’t funny any more.”
“It never was,” she said.
“There’s something wrong.”
“You’re just over-worked and tired,” she said, kissing his head again and throwing a little extra wiggle into her walk as she left the room. Mirsky knew her ‘follow me’ wiggle when he saw it, so he quickly capped his pen, turned out the office light, and headed for the bedroom.
As he was walking by the kitchen Mirsky saw a loaf of rye bread on the counter. He paused and tried to remember why he was standing outside the kitchen. Automatically his hand moved up and his thumb and forefinger massaged the creases between his eyes as if that would answer the question. How nice a salami sandwich would be, he thought, so he put together a dandy one with stone ground mustard, Muenster cheese, and a huge hunk of lettuce on that seeded rye. As he was opening a can of Coke Elaine walked into the kitchen in her ‘take me’ nightgown.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“Bite?” Mirsky offered, holding out his sandwich.[/private]
Paul Beckman is a real estate salesman. Sometimes his fiction writing sneaks into his real estate ads. He earned his MFA from Bennington College. Some publishing credits: The Connecticut Review, Playboy, Onthebus, Short Story Library, 5 Trope, The Scruffy Dog Review, Fiction Warehouse, Web del Sol, Long Story Short, Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette, Riverbabble, Exquisite Corpse, Collectedstories.com, and Postcard Shorts.